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Reproductive Genocide? A Look into Sterilization in Puerto Rico and East Los Angeles

The idea of eugenics is not new to the history of the world. One of the greatest examples of a eugenics project carried out by a global leader was during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany that began in 1933. Adolf Hitler managed to carry out a mass genocide of people who followed the Jewish faith, driven by the idea that one race was superior to all. Though the outright torture and murder of millions of people (usually in the developed world) is now regarded with intolerance, the racist notion that particular races should be managed through medical means is still prevalent today.

In class, we studied cases of reproductive rights in Puerto Rico and the United States. Both offer unique perspectives on the social, political, and economic pressures that play a role in the decision women make for their bodies. The women involved all faced sterilization but were presented the idea in very different ways.

Print on the sterilization of Puerto Rican women.

I want to begin with a look into Puerto Rico and the conditions the women faced throughout their period of mass sterilization. The two primary texts we worked with in class were Ana Maria Garcia's film La Operación and Patricia Briggs' text Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. Both provide contrasting outlooks on the case of "forced" sterilization occurring on the island, especially in terms of the ways that modern feminisms come into play with this topic. Before delving into that though, it is vital to understand the context in which the sterilizations were being performed in Puerto Rico.

Political cartoon of Operation Bootstrap.

Carried out by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín in the 1940s, Operation Bootstrap was Puerto Rico's novel economic plan that  "emphasized industrialization as the development strategy most likely to create jobs as quickly and effectively as was needed to have significant impact on peoples’ economic conditions." In effect, many US corporations flocked to Puerto Rico for cheap labor and tax laws that they would not face had they remained in the US. Working class Puerto Rican women largely made up the workforce of these manufacturing factories, allowing women to be a source of income for their households. With their new workforce set in place, corporations were likely to encourage the sterilization of women in order to reduce turnover and ensure that their factories would be filled with a portion of the population that was supposedly more docile than their male counterparts.

In Ana Maria Garcia's film, we see that the women of Puerto Rico were, in a sense, indoctrinated to hold the idea of the nuclear family with the greatest esteem. Many of them strongly associated a two-child family with an idea of "success." Some women actively sought to receive the sterilization procedure as it became increasingly normal throughout the 50s and 60s. Many of the working-class population were also encouraged by their husbands and medical professionals to follow through with the procedure, but it seemed that the majority of women that were sterilized did it on their own account.

Protestors advocate for intersectional feminism at the Women's March on Washington DC.

Though Garcia's film presents the sterilization of women as something that was forced onto them, Laura Briggs offers an alternative look into this issue. By making a distinction between U.S. or mainland feminists, she contrasts their efforts with Puerto Rican feminists and their own efforts to manage their reproductive rights. She highlights a huge gap between the efforts of both feminist groups as mainland feminists attempt to stretch a quasi-hegemonic belief onto the island that faced completely different circumstances than women in the U.S.

From the perspective of the mainland feminist, the sterilization of almost one-third of women of childbearing age during the 50s and 60s was strongly associated with an imperial eugenics project promoted by both the U.S. and the corporations heavily involved in Puerto Rico. Briggs then notes that this mode of thinking is one that is not aligned with the beliefs of Puerto Rico feminism, where the women actually fought for the right to be sterilized. Among this argument, she claims that “Puerto Rican feminism was erased from mainland feminist concerns.”

Lolita Lebron, "!Viva Puerto Rico Libre!" 1975, print. Smithsonian.

While I agree with the idea that the needs and efforts of Puerto Rican feminism were not recognized by mainland feminists, I believe that there are other factors to consider when thinking about the magnitude of sterilization in Puerto Rico. Though Briggs also notes that "there is no evidence that there was a repressive campaign to force them [to be sterilized]," there were other markers that affected their agency in their situation. For example, in La Operación we hear a woman speak of the idea of the nuclear family, as mentioned above, as a propagandistic project that they have been taught to respect and follow from a young age. Additionally, the changing economic landscape likely encouraged women to continue generating an income for their families instead of having children.

From the narratives presented in La Operación, it also seems that women are not alone in the decision to choose to be sterilized. Briggs convincingly argues that the sterilization of women in Puerto Rico was not a genocidal project carried out by the government, but I think the rates and ease of obtaining sterilizations speak to the external factors that may convince women to undergo this procedure. I feel that I must also acknowledge my positionality when speaking about this topic, as I am likely influenced by some of the same belief systems that convinced mainland feminists from viewing this as a state-sponsored genocidal project. With this in mind, I still believe that there were other ways that any of the issues that were meant at being targeted through sterilization, such as population control, could have been addressed in other ways. By specifically involving Puerto Rican women and having them house statistically high rates of sterilization, I believe that this was an indirect form of a eugenic project that, though it may not be systematic, was still promulgated by the larger structures that women are dependent on.

Chicana Brown Beret in Sacramento at La Marcha de la Reconquista. Notes from Aztlan.

When shifting the view onto women in East Los Angeles, as seen in No Más Bebés, the case of forced sterilization seems to be different. The film focuses on a legal battle between women who were sterilized without their consent at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and the doctors leading this project at the hospital. The moving narratives of the 10 women involved explicitly highlight the injustices they faced, along with their hopes for the future of their families. These women were essentially coerced into signing documents in English around the time of their deliveries at the hospital, though they often did not speak the language, were allowed to fully read the document, offered a translation, or were fully conscious at the time of signing.

The situation here is markedly different from that in Puerto Rico in that these women did not knowingly consent to this operation being done on them. The film also demonstrated that the hospital had a monetary motive to expand the sterilization of these women, and it seems that non-English speaking Latina women were the easiest patients to expand on. As noted by Lisa Ko's article, these procedures were carried out among women that were usually from the working-class. With this in mind, I feel that the act of these women being sterilized and their consequent loss in the courts can speak to a larger racial and/or eugenic project at play against the women of color who were patients at the LA County-USC Medical Center.

It is important to acknowledge the strides made because of this case, though it was a legal loss for the ten women. Spanish consent forms were thereafter made at the hospital, along with proper instructions prior to signing any document allowing for sterilization. The case also placed the movement against forced sterilization on the map of many people. A quick search of these incidences on social media sites like Twitter today also bring up other cases of sterilizations that ocurred in other parts of California (above).

Women fight for reproductive rights today. Image from the Women's March 2017.

Overall, the idea of sterilization becomes heavily politicized when contextualizing it among reproductive rights and the livelihood of marginalized communities in and out of the United States. While these incidences may not be explicitly genocidal, the acceptance of their happening speaks to the ingrained ideologies that believe it is acceptable to control the growth of marginalized populations. It almost seems immoral for the first solution to poverty to stop allowing humans to procreate, rather than to address the structural and economic forces that keep them in poverty. This, of course, is only speaking to those sterilized from the working-class and not the upper class. Women, in any case, should ultimately get to decide how many children they will or will not have if they choose to have any at all. But the fate of their reproduction should not be decided by anyone but themselves.