People with Mental Illnesses

Sterilization in the state of Oregon:

During the twentieth century, the creation of sterilization programs affected people with mental illnesses. From 1909 to 1983, sterilization laws in the state of Oregon set a narrative of using sterilization programs on their "unfit citizens," which resulted in the sterilization of around 2,500 people [5]. Physicians performed forced hysterectomies on the "feebleminded," to prevent their reproductive abilities [5]. 

The sterilization practices occurred in prisons and mental health institutions due to the belief in "improving" society [5]. This narrative was used to "justify" the act of involuntary sterilizations. 

Dr. Bethenia Ownes-Adair:

A contributor to the eugenic sterilizations laws in Oregon was Dr. Bethenia Angelina Owens-Adair. She believed that society could be improved by preventing the reproduction of "insane" people, of people with mental illnesses [5]. In 1904, she asserted, "the greatest curse of the race comes through [the] vicious criminal and insane classes," which resulted in the creation of the Owens-Adair Sterilization Bill. The bill passed the Senate and the House in 1909, but never became a law due to a veto by Governor George Chamberlain [5]. 

However, the pro-sterilization narrative of people with mental illnesses continued until 1983 due to the termination of the Board of Social Protection in Oregon, which ended the state's ability to sterilize people in "any state institution" [5]. 

Carrie Buck:

An example of the use of sterilization programs on people with mental illnesses is the case of Carrie Buck.

Buck was declared "feebleminded" because her foster family arranged for her to be so after she became pregnant in 1923 through rape by her foster family's nephew [6]. 

In 1924, the state of Virginia passed a sterilization law, which resulted in the usage of Buck as a test subject of the sterilization law by the superintendent of the State Colony, Alfred Priddy, to determine the "constitutionality of the law" [6]. The case was named Buck vs. Bell and the law was declared constitutional by Virginia in 1925 and the Supreme Court in 1927. 

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that the sterilization of individuals with cognitive disabilities in Virginia did not violate the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment [6]. 

He stated,

"She may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization " [6]. 

Carrie Buck was sterilized in 1927 [6]. 

The state of Montana:

Moreover, in 1969, the state of Montana passed a sterilization law that allowed the state eugenics board to determine if people with mental illnesses were capable of giving consent in terms of sterilization [7]. 

The specific clause in the law stated:

"who if they should procreate offspring might be expected either to transmit mental deficiencies to such offspring or be unable to adequately care for or rear such offspring without the likelihood of adverse effects on such offspring caused by such environment" [7]. 

The law was repealed in 1981, however, a total of 320 individuals were sterilized under the law [7]. 


[5] Largent, Mark A. ""The Greatest Curse of the Race": Eugenic Sterilization in Oregon, 

1909-1983." Oregon Historical Quarterly 103, no. 2 (2002): 188-209. Accessed November 2, 2020.

[6] Block, Pamela. "Sexuality, Fertility, and Danger: Twentieth-Century Images of Women with Cognitive Disabilities." Sexuality and Disability 18, no. 4 (12, 2000): 239-254. doi:

[7] Largent, Mark A. "Conclusion: The New Coerced Sterilization Movement." In Breeding 

Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States, 138-48. New 

Brunswick, New Jersey; London: Rutgers University Press, 2008. Accessed November 

2, 2020.

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