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eugenics tree

Bethenia Owens-Adair overcame a wave of hardships early in her life to earn a medical degree and become one of Oregon’s first practicing women doctors. She was a heroine of the state’s women’s-rights movement as well, with one newspaper in 1906 calling her “a central figure in the making of Oregon history.”

In the years that followed that effusive praise, she would extend her influence into public-health policymaking.

That’s where her legacy takes a dark turn.

Owens-Adair, who died in 1926 at 86, led the charge for a state sterilization law, based on her belief in eugenics, a scientific theory about heredity that is now considered racially biased and unethical.

She produced a widely distributed campaign pamphlet that heralded her as “Author of The Famous ‘HUMAN STERILIZATION’ BILL of Oregon.”

Owens-Adair called human sterilization “simply a remedy for degeneracy. Heredity, to my belief, is the directing force of all life. The purity of this source makes for good; impurity makes for evil.”

The well-known doctor, whose life The Oregon Journal insisted was “a tale of heroic courage,” admitted that she... see more