Apologize for Eugenics

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), August 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Apologize for Eugenics


Byline: The Register-Guard

News that records of Oregon's eugenics program have been shredded lends special urgency to a request that Gov. John Kitzhaber issue an apology to the 2,650 people who were forcibly sterilized by the state. These people were victims of a dangerously misguided policy that continued long after it was discredited; an apology is the least they should expect. And now, with the records of their mistreatment having been destroyed, an apology is needed to ensure that Oregon's practice of eugenics is not forgotten.

Eugenics, the idea that a human population can be improved through selective breeding, was intellectually respectable through much of the 20th century. It wasn't widely rejected until Adolf Hitler showed the appalling abuses that follow when a powerful group puts eugenics to work to prevent reproduction by people deemed undesirable. A government that claims the power to define groups as being undesirable bears the mark of totalitarianism.

Oregon's eugenics statute was adopted in 1917, and was modeled after a Virginia law that also became the basis of Nazi Germany's program of weeding out people called "useless eaters." Oregon's law created a State Board of Eugenics, whose duties were "To examine into the innate traits, the mental and physical conditions, the personal records, and the family traits and histories, of all feeble-minded, insane, epileptic, habitual criminals, moral degenerates and sexual perverts reported to it who will probably become social menaces or wards of the state, and to direct the superintendent of the institution in which the inmate is confined to perform or cause to be performed such type of sterilization as may be deemed best by said board."

In 1967, the board was renamed the State Board of Social Protection, and the description of its duties was changed: "The Board examines individuals for whom sterilization has been recommended; if, in the judgment of a majority of the board, procreation by the individual would produce children who would have an inherited tendency to mental retardation or mental illness, or who would become neglected or dependent children as a result of the parent's illness or retardation, the board orders the type of sterilization best suited to the person's condition."

It wasn't until 1983 that the Legislature abolished the board, which had become largely inactive. …

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