U.S. Sterilization of Puerto Rican Women in Puerto Rico and Mexican Women in California: Colonized Population the U.S. and its Territories

This article is written in hopes of initiating a discussion about forced sterilization, as a form of colonization and imperialism over the female body.  Here, I discuss forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women1 in Puerto Rico and Mexican women in California. It is my hope that this discussion will serve as a starting point, a place of departure if you will, calling upon us to remain “vigilant, ” especially during troubling times of transition in this country. Furthermore, it is my hope that this discussion will bring to the forefront of our collective consciousness how these practices served to subjugate Puerto Rican women in Puerto Rico and Mexican women in California impacted by poverty.

Broadly speaking,colonialism can be defined as the conquest and control of other people, where decisions affecting the lives of the colonized people are made by the colonial rulers. Specifically, according to J. Osterhammer, these rulers are convinced of their own superiority to dictate their inherent right to rule. In the U.S., as in the territory of Puerto Rico, examples of colonial practices that controlled reproductive rights through forced sterilization exemplify how the U.S. exercised its control over women’s bodies. This is not surprising as scholars contend that the female body, particularly the bodies of women of color, has often been a site of contestation. A report done by the World Health Organization on forced sterilizations in 2014, reminds us that the U.S. has a long history of using sterilization as a weapon of social control, oppression and as a form of eugenics, specifically, but not exclusively against people of color. However, after WWII due to the use of forced sterilization in Nazi Germany, the U.S. was widely criticized for their use of sterilization for population control.

Author Betsy Hartmann goes into much detail about the subject in her book “Reproductive Rights and Wrongs.”  Yet, forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women living in Puerto Rico and Mexican women in California continued.


Population Control and Reproductive Rights

Briefly, population control is described as a social policy where it is believed that certain populations should not have children or have limited amount of children. Historically, the U.S. has implemented pollution control targeting various groups of people, inside and outside the U.S. The groups targeted by the U.S. for population control include, but are not limited to: people with genetic disorders, people with HIV, people labeled as “feebleminded,” people born intersex, people with mental illness, Native American people, and incarcerated people. In addition, in the early part of the 20th century, as part of the eugenics movement in the U.S., people of color were specifically targeted for sterilization, as a method of population control. Moreover Hartmann and others continued to point out that the people of color that were targeted during this time tended to be “poor” people of color. Conversely, reproductive rights encompass an array of human rights chosen “freely” by people. This is done in order to exercise their reproductive rights, reproductive health, sexual health and sexual rights.

We now turn our attention to U.S. practices of population control through the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women in Puerto Rico and Mexican women in California. In doing so, I contend that the use of forced sterilization underscore colonial dominance over these women’s bodies, striking at the very core of Puerto Rican and Mexican culture.


Sterilization of Women in Puerto Rico

In the post WWII era, the U.S. engaged in various policies to reduce population growth by providing free sterilization services to women in Puerto Rico. According to Hartmann and other scholars, the prevailing thought of the U.S. government was that in the absence of children, women would enter the workforce. The goal of stimulating a work force in Puerto Rico was important because the poverty rate in Puerto Rico was extremely high, forcing mass migration to U.S. cities. However Laura Briggs, Author of “Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S.. Imperialism in Puerto Rico” argues that the U.S. government viewed this migration as problematic and as a threat to U.S. resources. The documentary “La operación” (The Operation) contends that the sterilization of Puerto Rican women in Puerto Rico continued into the 1960’s with approximately one-third of Puerto Rican women in Puerto Rico undergoing sterilization. It goes on to say that by the late 1960’s the sterilization rate of Puerto Rican women in Puerto Rico was higher than any state in the U.S.

Furthermore,  it contends that women that underwent sterilization procedures reported the following:

1) women believed that they had limited reproductive choices in the absence of birth control 2) women were unaware that the sterilization process was permanent (e.g. believing that the process was reversible) 3) women were unknowingly sterilized after giving birth and 4) some women regretted their decision to submit to voluntary sterilization, but felt hopeless in the absence of other viable choices.

Consequently, the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women in Puerto Rico bring to light how the U.S. imposed its power over women’s reproductive rights. The mass forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women in Puerto Rico did more than reduce the population growth of Puerto Ricans.

The mass forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women in Puerto Rico was a deliberate attempt to stop the procreation of Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico.

Whereby (at that time) halting the progression of the Puerto Rican culture. Subsequently, by colonizing Puerto Rican female bodies, the U.S. government exercised its ability to rule with superiority and supremacy.

However, Puerto Rican women in Puerto Rico were not the only population that endured forced sterilization by the U.S. government, as these practices also occurred in California, against Mexican women.


Sterilization of Mexican Women in California

According to an article in the American Journal of Public Health, in the early 1900’s, during the influx of the eugenics movement in the U.S., the federal government provided funding to states to perform sterilization procedures, as part of a family planning campaign. The article “Sterilized in the name of public health: Race, immigration, and reproductive control in modern California” goes on to say that when Mexican immigration increased in the state of California, the sterilization rates in California were the highest of any other state in the U.S. In addition, the author goes on to report that during the 1960’s and 1970’s a campaign aimed at population control took hold, targeting poor Spanish-speaking Mexican women. In addition, although, birth control was available, reproductive methods were targeted at middle-class women, while poor Mexican women underwent forced sterilization.     Another documentary, “No más bebés” (No More Babies) shows us that women that underwent forced sterilization procedures revealed the following:

1) women signed consent forms written in English, without knowing that they were consenting to sterilization procedures

2) women were forced to sign consent forms agreeing to sterilization (minutes) before or after labor, while under duress and

3) many women signed consent forms, believing that the medical procedure was reversible.

In 1975, ten women filed a class action lawsuit (Madrigal v. Quilligan), bringing attention to the practices of forced sterilization of Mexican women in California. However, the U.S. courts ruled that the doctors acted in the “best interest” of the women, concluding that there was no wrongdoing, but ordered that medical papers be translated into Spanish.

Consequently, forced sterilization of Mexican women in California illustrates the length that the U.S. government exercised in order to exert its domination over immigrant populations. This is not a surprising, as exercising rule over people is an essential tenet of colonization, whereby suppressing the colonized.

As such, controlling the female body has proven to be an effective tool of colonization and dominance, both historically and in contemporary times. As such, we must continue to bring these women’s stories to the forefront of our collective consciousness. In addition, we must remain vigilant; we must act and lift our

voices, especially given the political climate in which we find ourselves in today. A prevailing political climate that continues to muffle the voices of marginalized people, especially people that have endured a long history of colonialism. As a consequence scholars agree that  we must “…persist with our love and our fury because we know at our core that no one will serve us up liberation on a silver platter…”

Author’s Notes:

1 Sex, gender and gender expression are multifaceted processes that move our conversation beyond male/female binaries. However, here I use the term women as male/female binaries to stay in line empirical evidence denoting forced sterilization of the female body.

For a comprehensive database of state’s eugenics history go to http://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/

Milka Ramirez, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.

Assistant professor, social work, earned her Ph.D. in philosophy of social work with a certificate in gender and women’s studies, from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Jane Addams College of Social Work. Her dissertation research titled “An Examination of Homophobia and Social Work Practice Among a Sample of School Social Workers” was drawn from a national sample. Her research interests include homophobia, organizational change and issues of gender, race and social economic status. She was a school social worker with Chicago Public Schools, and has over 10 years of social work practice experience. She is also the co-founder and board president of En Las Tablas Performing Arts Community Center located in the West Logan Square area of Chicago, and is a spoken word performer who writes prose and monologues as an act of oppositional politics. Her work has been featured in NASW speaks and Sinister Wisdom.


U.S. Sterilization of Puerto Rican Women in Puerto Rico and Mexican Women in California:  Colonized Population the U.S. and its Territories References

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