When Ruth Morris was a teenager, her family was given a choice — their daughter could either be sterilized by the state or stay in an institution. Her father signed a paper allowing the surgery, and forever taking away her ability to have a child.
“I had to do it. They told me after it was done. I was unhappy but I couldn’t do anything about it," Ruth said.
At the time, Ruth lived at Fairview Training Center, Oregon's primary state-run institution for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). For decades, just about anyone leaving the institution faced compulsory sterilization before returning to the community. It was a policy known as eugenics.
In the early twentieth century, more than 30 states passed eugenics laws.
Simply put, eugenics policy advocated improving the human race through selective reproduction. People considered 'ideal' citizens were encouraged to have children together, while those deemed unfit were sterilization.
In Oregon, Bethenia Owens-Adair, one of the region's earliest female physicians, helped write and promote state-mandated sterilization legislation. A supporter of woman's suffrage, and prohibition, Owens-Adair advocated that eugenics would improve society.
“We can and must protect our nation from insanity, epilepsy, and the varied train of abnormalities that follow in their wake.” Dr. Bethenia Adair Owens said in 1915.
Oregon's 1923 law targeting people deemed "feeble-minded, insane, epileptic, habitual criminals, moral degenerates, and sexual perverts."
The state set up a Board of Eugenics that had the final decision over who would be sterilized. The board ordered its last forced sterilization in 1981. In 1983, Oregon's eugenics law was repealed. By that time, over 2,600 Oregonians had undergone compulsory sterilization by the state.
In 2002, then-Governor John Kitzhaber officially apologized for the policy of forced sterilization. Ruth, and others who had also been forcibly sterilized, attended the event at the state capitol. Ruth says she was happy to take part in the ceremony, “I felt good that he apologized.”
This story is part of Move to Include, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.