"The Greatest Curse of the Race" : Eugenic Sterilization in Oregon, 1909-1983

Article excerpt

Taking a tip from Nazi Germany, Oregon today considered embarking on a far-reaching program of sterilization of its unfit citizens.

--Oregon Journal, August 9, 1935

On August 9, 1935, readers of the Oregon Journal learned that state leaders hoped to reduce the high costs of prisons and charitable institutions by sterilizing and releasing selected criminals and patients. They believed, the Journal reported, that "the state must take more drastic steps to halt the increase in the numbers of criminally and mentally diseased persons." By sterilizing "morally degenerate or sexually perverted" inmates and patients, the state would render "unfit citizens" harmless to the general population and eliminate the threat that they would procreate and increase their numbers.

Nearly seven decades later, the idea that Oregonians took "a tip from Nazi Germany" to achieve the social and biological improvement of its citizenry is startling. What may be even more surprising is that Oregon had a eugenic sterilization program in place for almost twenty years before the 1935 propositions and that the state's mental health and prison officials had already sterilized a thousand "persons known to be feeble-minded, insane, epileptic, habitually criminal, morally degenerate or sexually perverted." Moreover, Oregon's eugenic sterilization law remained in effect for almost forty years after the horrors of Nazi eugenics became well known. By the time Oregon legislators overturned the state's eugenic sterilization law in 1983, almost twenty-five hundred citizens had been sterilized.[1]

Broadly conceived, eugenics was a popular reform movement that began in the United States around 1900, reached its peak in the 1930s in most states, and lasted well into the 1980s in many places. By applying knowledge from evolutionary biology and genetics to human reproduction, advocates of eugenics attempted to direct human evolution to create a safer, saner, and more productive society. Eugenicists sought to replace the inefficiencies of natural selection with rational, controlled reproduction that would speed along social progress by eliminating unfit citizens or undesirable traits from a given population. They placed a premium on the greater good of the community at the expense of individual human rights, justifying their actions on the basis of the benefit to future generations.

In the United States, support for eugenics arose as part of the broader American progressive movement, which emphasized planned and centrally administered solutions to social and political problems.[2] Many of the same reformers who advocated temperance, woman's suffrage, and political reform also championed eugenic legislation.[3] Eugenics represented one aspect of what David Noble calls the "paradox of progressive thought," as progressives sought a balance in the competing ideals of individual rights and collective reform.[4]

Americans' increasing anxiety about immigrants, especially Catholics, provided an important context for the eugenics movement in the years following the horror and devastation of World War I. This was perhaps most evident in the testimony provided to the U.S. House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization by Dr. Harry H. Laughlin of the Eugenic Records Office during the hearings for the 1920s Emergency Immigration acts. Congressmen, led by Albert Johnson of the Seattle area, hired Laughlin as the "expert eugenical agent" to testify on the quality of more recent immigrants to the United States. Laughlin argued that earlier waves of immigrants consisted of higher-quality individuals whose initiative, courage, and resourcefulness had drawn them to America. By 1900, however, new immigrants to the United States were being forced from their home countries, and they were judged to be motivated by a search for a safe haven rather than by their own initiative. The biological good of the nation demanded federal legislation to keep these new immigrants out, Laughlin argued, especially Eastern European Jews and Roman Catholics from Southern Europe. …