Latina Women: Forced Sterilization

One of the major issues facing Latinas today is the issue of reproduction control. Professor Alex Stern reported that “reproductive control meant a heightened concern about reproduction, the “unfit” are over-breeding and the “fit” are under-breeding. In California and the Southwest from the 1920s to the 1970s and to today, this has been translated into stereotypes of Mexican women as overly-fecund, reckless breeders dependent on public welfare; the same with Puerto Rican women, both on the island and mainland."1 This reproductive control has haunted Latina women for many years. Most people think that because most Latinas are Catholic, this is not an issue for them, because Catholics do not believe in abortion, birth control, or are not active in struggles for reproductive health. This is a major misconception. In fact, it is believed that Latinas participation is even more radical than Anglos because they are concerned with more issues than just preventing pregnancy and abortion.2

One of the main reasons for Latinas to organize and a major cause of the Latinas women’s rights movement was the sterilization campaigns in Puerto Rico. In the 1930s, the island of Puerto Rico was experiencing a high level of poverty and unemployment. Thus, the government blamed the overpopulation on the island as a cause of these problems. The government then decided that sterilization campaigns were necessary to suppress these problems. Moreover, they felt if more women were sterilized, they would have more time to work, and thus help the economy since women were considered part of the cheap labor force.3 Thus, the government began to provide funds for sterilization to the Puerto Rican government. The idea of sterilization was promoted on the island and to the women, and it almost appeared necessary. For example, in the documentary, “La Operacion,”4 one woman said she saw her friend who had just gotten sterilized, and she was jealous because she got to miss work so the woman decided she wanted to get sterilized too. She said all she had to do was ask the mayor, and the next day she got sterilized. “By 1968 one third of women of childbearing age had been sterilized on the island, the highest percentage anywhere in the world at that time.”5

Unfortunately, the real reasons behind the sterilization campaigns were not justified at all. One of the reasons was that Puerto Rico was a U.S. colony, so there was still the idea of Manifest Destiny. “Manifest Destiny is a phrase that expressed the belief that the United States had a divinely inspired mission to expand, spreading its form of democracy in freedom.”6 This had been the reason for American expansion in the 1800's when the US had acquired Puerto Rico. This idea incorporates the concept of an “ideal race” and the United States felt that they could do whatever they wanted to the Puerto Ricans because they were inferior. This also incorporates the idea of eugenics. Professor Alex Stern said that eugenics is the idea that certain genes are good or bad. At this time, there was a stereotype in the U.S. that Puerto Ricans were “dysfunctional welfare queens.” This was further justified by the IQ tests performed in the 1970s. This was done in the US and it labeled Mexican and poor women as lower than average and as irresponsible breeders. Thus, the US government felt confident in forcing sterilization on these women.7

The same sterilization campaigns were happening in the US as well as in Puerto Rico. This time it was towards the Mexicans and poor women in California. Around the 1970s, there were a mass number of immigrants in the US, and fear grew among the whites over the loss of their race and culture.8 This goes back to the idea of eugenics and population control. The Anglos felt they were the ideal race, and this white supremacy allowed them to force sterilization campaigns on Mexicans in California.

The whites wanted to limit the “unfit genes” and produce more “fit” genes, which correlated to more white children. Programs were developed to target Mexican women and their children, and try to get them to have fewer children. This was part of the “War on Poverty” which gave federal funding for family planning and birth control. These programs indirectly sent the message that Mexican women would not be good mothers and that they were not good citizens of the US. 9 There was also an environmental movement called Zero Population Growth, which directly links the environmental problems in the world to population growth. The concept was to try to keep the birth rate equal to the death rate so there would not be any increase in population.10

By the late 1970s, the Latina population was very unhappy with these governmental controls on reproduction, both in Puerto Rico and the US. Thus, they decided to organize. Minority women feared, because they were having their reproductive rights suppressed, a mass genocide of their race. The first mass organization came with the Young Lords Party after Carmen Rodriguez became the first woman to die of a legal abortion. The Young Lords Party boycotted the local hospitals providing the abortions and started their own clinics. Many other groups followed in the struggle for reproductive freedom. In 1974, the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (CESA) was founded by Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, Dr. Raymond Rakow and Maritza Arrastia. Many lawsuits also followed in Los Angeles, in which Latina women claimed that they were involuntarily sterilized. Unfortunately, the courts did not agree with them and blamed the sterilizations on a “communication barrier” between the doctors and the women.11

Much is being done today to fight reproductive right of Latinas and other minority women. In 1986, the National Latina Health Organization was founded which “combines direct service with public policy and health advocacy and was modeled on the National Black Women’s Health Project. The group promotes self-empowerment for Latinas though educational programs, outreach and research.”12 In 1994, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health was established as “the first independent national organization for Latinas in reproductive rights issues.”13 Much work continues to be done, and the evolution of all this activism stems from the sterilization campaigns in Puerto Rico and California in the last half of the 20th century.


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