Herstory

Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias – Warrior Against Forced Sterilization

Between 1938 and 1968 a third of women in Puerto Rico who were child-bearing age had been sterilized without consent or fully understanding the consequences of the procedures they were having. In the 1970s, Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias brought these issues to light and helped bring reform to a corrupt system.

A Brief History of Forced Sterilization in Puerto Rico

In 1898, the United States invaded and seized Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War and claimed colonial ownership. In the coming years, U.S. sugar companies seized the opportunity to create large sugar plantations throughout the island and by 1933 they had monopolized 314,000 acres. Thousands of farmers were forced from their lands and those who stayed as agricultural laborers were making just 37 cents per day. That is the equivalent of around $13.25 today…hardly a living wage. 

Caneworkers began to form militant unions and nationalism for a free Puerto Rico was growing. Hiding behind the real problem, the U.S. decided to blame Puerto Rico’s unstable economy on population growth. Sterilization was introduced to the Puerto Rico health system in the 1930’s along with other contraception. 

In a 1970s expose published by the Committee of Puerto Rican Decolonization using findings from Harriet Presser in “The Role of Sterilization in Controlling Puerto Rican Fertility” they stated:

In 1934, 67 birth control clinics were opened with federal funds channeled through the Puerto Rican Emergency Relief Fund. The funds lasted only two years; then in 1936 the private Maternal and Childcare Health Association opened 23 clinics. The Family Planning Association of Puerto Rico, another private organization, was established in 1954, two years after the Population Council was formed in the United States by John D. Rockefeller. During the next ten years, it subsidized sterilization in private facilities for 8,000 women. Between 1956 and 1966 it also subsidized sterilization of 3,000 men. Thousands of sterilizations also took place in public hospitals. In 1949 the Commissioner of Health in Puerto Rico was quoted in El Mundo as saying he would favor the use of district hospitals once or twice a week to perform fifty sterilizations a day. Many doctors were pro-sterilization rather than other forms of birth control. 

The entire medical system in Puerto Rico was developed by the United States and training was carried out by U.S. doctors. During this time, a wide consensus among doctors was that it was too difficult for lower class Puerto Ricans to manage regular contraception methods. Not only a racist attitude, but practically a policy during the times. 

It became normal routine for doctors to sterilize a woman after giving birth to her first or second child while still in the hospital. It went from ten percent in 1940 to 37.7 percent in 1950 and by 1965 postpartum sterilizations had grown to a whopping 90 percent. Many of the women who were sterilized were not well educated by medical staff about the lasting effects of the procedure or ever gave consent to begin with.

Dr, Helen Rodriguez-Trias

The Role of Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias

Dr. Rodriguez-Trias was born in New York in 1929, but spent her early years in Puerto Rico. At the age of 10 she and her family returned to New York City. During her childhood she experienced racism and discrimination first-hand and became a student-activist while enrolled in the University of Puerto Rico fighting for free speech and Puerto Rican independence. She later decided to study medicine because as she explained, it “combined the things I loved the most, science and people. I understood that medicine would give me more direct and independent ways to contribute to society, not through organizations or abstract studies, but acting directly on the individual.”

In 1970, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias returned to New York to work in community medicine. She became head of Lincoln Hospitals pediatric department, which served a largely Puerto Rican section of the South Bronx. During this time she became an active member in the women’s health movement. She was a founding member of the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse and the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse. It is because of the guidelines that she helped draft that it is now required by law that a doctor must have written consent for sterilization in a language the woman understands and that there must be a waiting period from the time of consent to the time of the sterilization procedure. During this time a woman has every right to change her mind.

She later went on to serve as the medical director of the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute in the 1980s and worked on behalf of women with HIV. In January 2001, she was awarded the Presidential Citizen’s Medal for her work on behalf of women, children, people with HIV and AIDS, and the poor. Later that year Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias passed away at the age of 72. Her legacy will not be forgotten.

“I hope I’ll see in my lifetime a growing realization that we are one world. And that no one is going to have quality of life unless we support everyone’s quality of life…Not on a basis of do-goodism, but because of a real commitment…it’s our collective and personal health that’s at stake.”

– Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias.

Hot for more?

Read: The History of Forced Sterilization in the United States

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