Population control has been a driving force in US policy for well over a century, as I described in my previous post. One of the more egregious examples of population control is the history of forced sterilization in Puerto Rico. Spain ceded the island of Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898, putting Puerto Rico under tight US control as a territory. Puerto Rico did not gain the right to democratically elect its own governor until 1947, and since then has made strides towards greater autonomy from the US.
The history of coercive population control policy in Puerto Rico begins with a superintendent of the US Eugenics Record Office named Harry Laughlin. Laughlin used a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law to implement the mandatory sterilization of the “socially inadequate” in 30 US states and Puerto Rico. This overtly eugenic policy deliberately targeted groups of people for sterilization (e.g. the feeble-minded, the insane, orphans, ne’er-do wells) and later inspired Hitler’s forced sterilization program in Europe.
Laughlin’s Model Eugenic Sterilization Law spread throughout the US between 1907 an the 1930s. By 1933, US sugar companies owned 13 percent of Puerto Rico and forced large numbers displaced farmers into migrant agricultural labor and urban centers. The glaring poverty rates motivated a government intervention in line with the dominant eugenic discourse of the day. In 1936 Law 116 entered into force making sterilization legal and free for women in Puerto Rico while offering no alternative methods of birth control. The prevailing wisdom was that denial of motherhood was a more effective means of incorporating women into the workforce than affordable childcare. The Puerto Rican government and the International Planned Parenthood Federation ran a sterilization program with US government funding, and by 1968 the program had sterilized roughly one third of Puerto Rican women. Numerous studies have shown that misinformation about the procedure caused high rates or regret among sterilized women. Many women were unaware that the procedure was permanent, due in part to the euphemism of “tying tubes.” Additionally, many women had no alternative affordable contraceptive methods, so they opted for sterilization.
Sterilization in Puerto Rico under Law 113 was “voluntary” only in the narrowest sense of the word. Employer discrimination and a general lack of alternative options gave women a very strong incentive to participate in the procedure. The basic idea that that sterilization would free women from the burden of childbearing to work in an industrialized workforce underwrote the entire program. This was done in the context of a women’s rights movement in the United States strongly supporting birth control as a means for women’s gaining more reproductive rights. Most of the women seeking sterilization already had several children, so the effectiveness of the program in terms of population control was dubious at best.
By the 1970s US mainland feminists and Puerto Rican anti-colonialists united to end the practice of forced sterilization, but the legacy of distrust of US government intervention in Puerto Rican society remains. I don’t have time to delve into the depths of a discussion of the gendered framework that led to the widespread disabuse of Puerto Rican women’s reproductive rights, but I hope some of this information provides a clear example of how population policy can be used to coercively deny women rights over their own reproduction under the banner of “voluntary sterilization.”