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Puerto Rico Revisited » Family Planning

Puerto Rico Revisited

October 30th, 2008 by mjromano Leave a reply »

I suspect that my last blog entry on Puerto Rican sterilization policy inadequately dealt with the complexity of the topic, so I am going to delve a bit deeper into the same subject this week. Last week I explained that Law 116 in Puerto Rico, influenced by the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law from the US mainland, made sterilization the most accessible form of birth control and led to the sterilization of one third of Puerto Rican women by 1968. I now need to retract part of my assertion from last week because I provided too simplistic of a conspiracy theory explaining the trend toward high sterilization rates in Puerto Rico. This blog post will explain that no single unilateral program of oppression led to high sterilization rates, but rather several social and political movements converged to sterilize a problematically high proportion of Puerto Rican women.

Puerto Rico legalized contraception in 1937, the same year that the government passed Law 116, which allowed sterilization under the direction of a Eugenic Sterilization Board, but Law 116 was not directly responsible for the subsequent spike in Puerto Rican sterilizations. Prior to 1937, private organizations promoted various contraceptives, some with US funding under the New Deal’s Puerto Rican Reconstruction Administration (PRRA), but mostly independent of the US government.  Puerto Rican opposition to contraception was rooted in the island’s strong nationalist and religious traditions. Historian Laura Briggs explains that skepticism of US government plots to sterilize Puerto Ricans dated at least to the early 1930s when Dr. Cornelius Rhoads (who later performed chemical weapons tests on unprotected U.S. soldiers during World War II) purportedly injected cancer cells into unsuspecting Puerto Ricans in his research supported by the Rockefeller Foundation (76-77). Other Rockefeller Foundation- and US government-supported programs promoted relatively unsuccessful spermicidal jellies as a form of contraception, which gave birth control an early reputation of being ineffective (Briggs 102). Although the US judicial system exonerated Dr. Rhoads, Puerto Rican skepticism remained and led to strong nationalist and Catholic opposition to the PRRA and other US government programs during the 1930s. After the legalization of contraceptives in 1937 and the creation of the Eugenics Board, sterilization became more available than other effective birth control methods. The Eugenics Board used “poverty” as a legitimate reason to review and authorize forced sterilization, and ordered the sterilization of about 48 people in the following decades. By 1968, Puerto Rican sterilization rates for women aged 18 to 45 reached 35.3 percent according to a study by the Puerto Rican demographer Dr. Jose Vasquez Calzada. Overall, the historical emphasis on ineffective birth control methods (e.g. spermicidal jellies) followed by the ready accessibility of sterilization after 1937 led to the spike in sterilization rates. Law 116 played a largely symbolic role and was not directly responsible for the vast numbers of sterilizations. Rather the confluence of several powerful social and political movements resulted in an environment unusually inclined to sterilize women.

The eugenics movement and women’s rights movements were strange bedfellows on the mainland US (as I discussed in the blog “One little history of population theory”), and in Puerto Rico they allied with socialist professionals and international developers to support sterilization. Liberal professionals in the Puerto Rican Socialist Party supported birth control in order to strengthen the working class by freeing them from their “oppressive” parental obligations (Briggs 90-91). The rise of birth control as the subject of women’s liberation on the American mainland supported Puerto Rican liberals’ opposition to the dominant pronatalist Catholic society. Malthusian rationales for population control were not useful in Puerto Rico because by the 1930s the island imported most of its food and devoted a large proportion of its labor to producing cash crops, so any increase in population would not overburden local resources. During the early 20th century whenever Puerto Rico’s economy grew and its birth rate fell, unemployment and poverty rates actually increased because the wealth was largely concentrated in the hands of foreigners. The underlying causes of poverty in Puerto Rico were not overpopulation or scarcity of arable land, but rather the poor organization of social and economic power. After World War II, Puerto Rico served as a test case for American producers establishing manufacturing facilities overseas to make goods for sale on the mainland. In Puerto Rico, eugenicists, socialists, and transnational companies all supported policies to make sterilizations more accessible.

So what is the point I am trying to make by complicating my previously simple argument that said Law 116 led to coercive sterilization? I am trying to show that it was not a single coercive policy or monolithic group that supported sterilization, but rather a confluence of several movements involving class politics and transnational economics. While many Puerto Rican nationalists and religious pronatalists opposed the introduction of cheap sterilizations, other Puerto Ricans with business interests and socialist politics supported sterilizations. Explicitly forced sterilizations made up very few of the total sterilizations in Puerto Rico, but when Jose Calzado surveyed sterilized Puerto Rican women in 1979, 36.1 percent of those surveyed were unhappy about having had the operation, which suggests that the circumstances of their surgery may have been somewhat coercive. Some mainland feminists have co-opted the story of Puerto Rican sterilization as an example of unilateral American patriarchy at work in the developing world, but that ignores both the Puerto Rican support for and resistance to many reproductive health policies. Misconceptions about the root causes of poverty drove many to support increased sterilization in Puerto Rico, in some cases to the detriment of Puerto Rican women. An objective feminist critique of Puerto Rican sterilization acknowledges that many Puerto Rican women supported sterilization out of a belief that it would benefit Puerto Ricans, but the ultimate effects of sterilization actually infringed on many peoples’ right to control their own reproduction.

Briggs, Laura. Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. University of California Press: Berkeley, 2002.



  1. Maggie Chen says:

    Thanks for clarifying how sterilization was influenced in Puerto Rico. It seems like we mostly talk about a government’s influence on reproduction in terms of how the government impacts women. A question that keeps coming up for me is: how do women’s partners feel about all this? In a strictly heteronormative sense, what role do individual men, as half of the baby-making equation, play in the sterilization debate? I am wondering if there are any men who, as partners, stood up for a certain side of the debate.

  2. jliebner@stanford.edu says:

    I’m wondering about how the women reacted against such procedures – did they feel that they were coercive and, if so, did they demand retribution? Have women’s groups in Puerto Rico addressed this (the permanent loss of the ability to have children) or the converse issue, failure of promoted contraceptive methods that failed and women became pregnancy in terms of giving monetary or other forms of compensation to women affected by government supported programs?

  3. Denise Oliver-Velez says:

    Thank you for your interesting discussion of sterilization in Puerto Rico.

    After interviewing several hundred Puerto Rican women about their birth control choices as part of an HIV/AIDS research project conducted in East Harlem (NY) and Bayamon (PR) it became clear that a majority of the women who had chosen tubal ligation as a birth control method of choice, still referred to the operations as “having had their tubes tied”. None were aware that having them “untied” is not a simple procedure, nor was this explained to them prior to choosing tubal ligation. All of these women were receiving Medicaid, which paid for the procedure. Medicaid does not cover the costs of a reversal.

    We interviewed far more men than women, and few of the men had ever even been asked about a vasectomy, and none had the procedure.

    My primary concern, is that given the high risks for HIV/AIDS in the population we studied (IVDUs and their sexual partners), there has not been much of an education effort (if any) about the relationship between increased risk of HIV transmission and tubal ligation.

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