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Oregon Doctor Urges Forced Sterilization of Criminals and Insane

One of Oregon’s first female doctors was an outspoken advocate of women’s suffrage and Prohibition before shaking up the state in 1904 by calling for the sterilization of criminals, the insane and the developmentally disabled.

The doctor, Bethenia Owens-Adair, successfully lobbied the Legislature to adopt a sterilization bill in 1909.  The governor vetoed it, but the Legislature approved a similar sterilization bill that became law from 1926 to 1983.  It resulted in the forced sterilization of more than 2,500 inmates in Oregon’s prisons and mental health institutions.  Gov. John Kitzhaber formally apologized on behalf of the state in 2002.

Dr. Owens-Adair asserted in these words, “The greatest curse of the race comes through our vicious criminal and insane classes, and to my mind … if their power to reproduce themselves were rendered null a tremendous [sic] important … advance would have been taken.”  She added, “ ‘Like begets like,’ from which there is no escaping.”

A pioneer Oregonian, Owens-Adair was a successful hat and dress maker in Roseburg, Ore., when she decided at age 30 to become a doctor at a time when most U.S. medical schools only admitted male students.  She died at age 86 in 1926.

Sources: Sources: Owens-Adair, B.A. Gleanings from a Pioneer Woman Physician's Life. Portland, Ore.: Mann and Beach, Printers, 1922. Print; Miller, Brandon M. Women of the Frontier. Chicago, Ill.: Chicago Review Press, 2013. Print; "Suffrage and Sterilization: Dr. Owens-Adair." Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health. Oregon State Hospital, 2012. Web. 22 Dec. 2014. http://oshmuseum.org/suffrage-and-sterilization-dr-owens-adair/; Bethenia Owens-Adair. Human Sterilization: It's [sic] Social and Legislative Aspects. Portland, Ore., 1922.

Kernan Turner is the Southern Oregon Historical Society’s volunteer editor and coordinator of the As It Was series broadcast daily by Jefferson Public Radio. A University of Oregon journalism graduate, Turner was a reporter for the Coos Bay World and managing editor of the Democrat-Herald in Albany before joining the Associated Press in Portland in 1967. Turner spent 35 years with the AP before retiring in Ashland.