Background photo of the beach at Whale Cove was made by Bryce Buchanan in 2004. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)
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IT WAS A YEAR or two after Little established herself in Portland that Bethenia Owens-Adair launched her successful bid to get mandatory sterilization of “undesirables” legalized.
Now, of course, eugenic sterilization was not Little’s primary target. That, in memory of little Kenneth, would always be mandatory vaccination. But she saw the two issues as closely related. In both cases, mainstream physicians were asserting control over other people’s bodies. And she also saw that the same spirit animated both acts — the technocratic spirit of the Progressive movement, the spirit that looked to mould and guide society to greater virtuousness by whatever means the relevant experts thought best, with scant regard for individual rights.
“A bull in a china shop is a gentle, constructive creature compared with a lot of prim and more-or-less pious folks when they want to clean up society and the world,” she wrote in her column in the Mount Scott Herald. “Mr. Sudden Reformer sees something he does not like in one of his fellow citizens. Very likely it is a reprehensible thing. Plenty of evils exist in the lives and habits of all classes. This would be a thing of which Mr. Sudden Reformer is not himself guilty. Therefore he hates it with a mighty loathing. Dwelling on it, he works himself into a frenzy.”
Little now worked herself into something of a frenzy as well. Reaching out to fellow anti-allopaths as well as civil libertarians, she joined (or possibly founded) the Anti-Sterilization League, accepted the position of vice-president, and took on the job of collecting enough signatures to refer the law to the voters in November under Oregon’s then-new Initiative and Referendum system.
The Portland Morning Oregonian, which was a vigorous supporter of the Owens-Adair law, spluttered and fulminated against the “panicky, superstitious individuals” who were trying to block it; but this was a hard case to make in the same newspaper that had been publishing Lora Little’s articulate and convincing (if frequently misguided) letters for years.
And as Governor West had pointed out, there really were some serious issues with the law — besides the obvious one, of course. Portland attorney C.E.S. Wood, a prominent Progressive who many of the law's supporters doubtless thought they would find on their side, was one of the most outspoken about the need to stop the law.
“Their chief argument was that under the proposed law the assent of only two persons was needed to authorize surgical mutilation of the most helpless members of society,” historian Robert Johnson writes. “History demonstrated, the opponents asserted, that people with this kind of power tend to abuse it.”
It was an argument that resonated with the public. And so, to Dr. Owens-Adair’s dismay, the voters quashed the law by a substantial majority; 56 percent of them voted to throw it out.
DR. OWENS-ADAIR HAD lost the battle, but not the war. She took the critique of C.E.S. Wood and Oswald West to heart, and her next eugenic-sterilization bill contained more checks and balances, more processes of notification and appeal, and called for an actual state eugenics commission to provide oversight. And in 1917, it passed.
But by that time Lora Little was out of the picture, having left town to join the national American Medical Liberty League. In the end, perhaps she was less of a force of nature than she seemed. She left town just after the 1916 elections, in which she had thrown all her resources into a losing ballot-measure battle against her old enemy, mandatory vaccination, which she predicted would be “thrown down hard at the polls by a people who like to think they own the blood in their veins and feel it is their business what goes into it.”
She had a point. But the extenuating circumstances in mandatory vaccination — herd immunity, the disruption of mass-casualty epidemics — were a lot more compelling than they were in eugenic sterilization, and her campaign fell just 374 votes short of passage.
As for Owens-Adair’s sterilization act, it went into effect and over the subsequent 75 years the state of Oregon quietly sterilized more than 2,600 people — troubled youths in juvenile detention facilities, insane-asylum inmates, members of poor families selected by social workers, and penitentiary prisoners. Finally, in 1983, the state eugenics board — renamed, for public-relations reasons, the Board of Social Protection — was quietly dissolved, bringing the whole ignoble experiment to an end. And in 2002, Governor John Kitzhaber formally apologized to everyone the state had mutilated under the law.
It was bad. But had it not been for Lora Little, it likely would have been a good deal worse.