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Sterilization of Puerto Rican Women

This is a presentation slide with the title "Puerto Rico: La Operacion." There is a black and white image of a woman smiling while looking at a young child that she is holding. There is also the following text: "Young women were key to labor force — Problem was pregnancy. Result: massive sterilization program. Women coerced into sterilization without being told it was irreversible. By 1968, 1/3 of women childbearing age were sterilized. Emigration and sterilization resulted in population drop with no increase in standard of living."

In 1937, Puerto Rico enacted Law 116, the last eugenics sterilization law passed under United States territorial jurisdiction. Soon after, a program endorsed by the U.S. government began sending health department officials to rural parts of the island advocating for sterilization. The Puerto Rican government fully supported this program, as it attributed overpopulation to the island’s high levels of poverty and unemployment. With the growth of American corporations on Puerto Rican soil and factory work, they also wanted to integrate women into the workforce more fully and child bearing was seen as an obstacle to that. In fact, sterilization efforts were so prevalent that they were integrated into women’s work lives. Family planning clinics could be found in factories that provided free sterilization thanks to a USAID grant.  Sterilization was so common that it was simply referred to as “la operación” (which means the operation. In 1982 the documentary “La Operación was made about this). It is estimated that between 1947-1948, 7% of Puerto Rican women were sterilized and by 1956, one out of three women suffered the same fate. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, approximately one-third of the childbearing population of Puerto Rico was sterilized, making it highest rate of sterilization in the world. (This, by the way, is the same program under which Puerto Rican women also became the guinea pigs for U.S. pharmaceutical companies who were developing the modern birth control pill. It is said that birth control pills were made possible because of all the Puerto Rican women who were experimented on, without knowing that the side effects of the pills or safe dosages had not been figured out yet).

Since then, there have been many surveys and interviews done with women who had la operación, in which coercion and misinformation come up as common themes. The procedures were presented to women as free forms of reliable family planning, but many were never told that the procedure was irreversible and did not find out until they were ready to start a family or have more children. The conditions under which many women were sterilized were also incredibly shady and deceitful. 

Countless women have given accounts that involved: being asked to give consent while in the midst of an entirely different operation (like a kidney stone removal), while they were in pain and not entirely sure what they were consenting to; being asked to sign forms that were in English with a rushed explanation in Spanish that did not fully divulge the full nature of what they were signing; partners being able to give consent on their behalf without them knowing about it until afterwards; arriving to the hospital for something else and being told that if they did not consent to being sterilized, the medical attention they needed would not be given; and, in some cases, not recalling being asked at all–some of these cases include mothers who, after giving birth, had their tubes involuntarily tied because the doctors (without consulting either parent) felt that was the best decision. Some even gave testimonies of harassment— women who worked for the program would knock on their door on a weekly basis asking if they were ready to go though with the procedure; this happened even if someone said that they were not interested.