Colonized Wombs? Reproduction Rights and Puerto Rican Women

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Following World War II, Puerto Rico and the rest of the
Third World emerged as a problem for U.S. philanthropists,
foreign policy makers, and social scientists to
solve. A major concern of the times was that Third World
populations were too poor, making them easily vulnerable
to communist tendencies. To prevent such a turn of events,
Puerto Rico’s poverty was perceived as a real danger to U.S.
interests. The consequence was an abrupt expansion of the
U.S. academic, military, political, and economic intervention
into the everyday life of Puerto Ricans. This intervention
was carried out under the code word “development,”
the modern paradigm for the new colonialism.
Puerto Rico became the explicit “laboratory” in which
development efforts—foreign aid, industrialization, and
population control—were tested
as global policy. The wombs
of Puerto Rican women served
as convenient objects for the
projection of political and economic
interests. Liberals longed
to rescue Puerto Rican women,
whom they perceived as victims
of their men and their many children. For conservatives,
Puerto Rican women were “demon mothers” whose dangerous
fecundity could only be halted with aggressive measures—
sterilization, high doses of hormones, and perhaps
even placing contraceptives in the water.
In both cases, the sexuality and reproduction of Puerto
Rican women were seen as the great culprit of poverty,
rather than the exploitative foreign policies of colonization
that catered to U.S. political economic interests on
the island. Accordingly, poverty in Puerto Rico was
blamed on overpopulation. Hence, Operation Bootstrap,
formulated in the late 1940’s, was founded precisely on
this belief. Two major components to the policy were
incorporated in efforts to ameliorate overpopulation on
the island.
First, migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland was
encouraged, resulting in over 50% of Puerto Ricans living
off the island by 1970. This served to ensure Puerto
Rico’s dependence on relations with the U.S. and to provide
a low-wage workforce on the mainland. Second was
a direct attack on reproduction. Government officials,
public health officials, hospital administrators, missionaries,
and social workers encouraged the use of contraceptives
and surgical sterilization. By 1969, 35% of all
Puerto Rican women of child-bearing age had undergone
la operación.
Operation Bootstrap was carried out by the “modern”
generation with it’s belief in the value of scientific, expert
knowledge and faith in the “development” plan. Governor
Luis Muñoz Marin’s fear of leading the island into economic
ruin was the primary impetus for the establishment of
this untenable alliance with U.S. academics, missionaries,
and philanthropists. All who, along with Muñoz Marin,
fiercely stood by the belief that population control was the
only viable solution to the growing economic demise of
the island.
Simultaneously, the political, economic and social
structures of the island became firmly anchored on U.S.
export-led industrialization. Factories, that employed disproportionate
numbers of women, were considered the
primary engines of economic growth. Accordingly, women
employed outside the home increased by 21% each
decade between 1940—1960; while the labor participation
of Puerto Rican men dropped from 80% in 1950 to
60% by1975.
As development policies wantonly destroyed agriculture in
favor of wage-labor and government subsidies, unemployment
increased and cheap airfares
were made available to those
wanting to leave for the mainland.
This combination of events
spurred massive exodus of Puerto
Rican men to the States. But
despite the growing number of
Puerto Rican women utilizing
birth control or undergoing sterilization, the self-subsistence
of the people decreased. As a consequence, dependence on
welfare aid steadily increased as the island was turned into a
welfare economy—by 1990, 75% of all Puerto Ricans were on
some sort of public assistance program.
In the midst of Cold War politics, U.S. colonialism did
not emerge as a politically popular answer for Puerto Rican
poverty—but overpopulation did. From the eugenics movement
to population policy to sterilization, the sexuality and
reproduction of poor and working class women became the
battleground upon which the meaning of U.S. presence on
the island was forged. However, it must be noted that the
language of overpopulation dominated the political and
public health landscape of Puerto Rico throughout its history
as a colony. The ills of the “natives” always led to sexuality,
as officials targeted venereal disease, prostitution, and
immoral sexual conduct as key areas for reform.
Hence, the inferiorization of Islanders was systematically
produced through racialized, gendered, and classbound
moralisms attached to the wombs of Puerto Rican
women. Throughout the last century, Puerto Rican difference
was represented both in popular culture and public
policy debates through women’s sexuality and reproduction.
The fertility of Puerto Rican women was considered
dangerous to the interests of the capitalist state—thus, in
need of suppression and control.
Out-of-control reproduction and sexuality were used to
defend the necessity of colonialism in Puerto Rico, promoting
U.S. regulation and governance of the island as
inevitable. As such, Puerto Rican women were considered
the prime choice for innovative birth control research.
Consequently, Puerto Rican reproduction and its response
to family-planning interventions were carefully monitored
with the intention to provide a model of population control
for the rest of the Third World.
But there is another unfortunate aspect to this scenario
that cannot be ignored. Whether through scientific claim,
political rhetoric, or religious orthodoxy, the existence of
Puerto Rican women has been defined almost exclusively
in terms of sexuality and reproduction. More often than
not, even in liberal circles, this relied extensively on paradigms
of victimization, rendering Puerto Rican feminism
as either non-existent or always in a state of co-optation.
This is most apparent in the U.S. Feminist Movement,
where narrow depictions of the use of sterilization by
Puerto Rican women was consistently framed simply as a
matter of U.S. imperialism.
Missing from this popular mainstream feminist interpretation
was the fact that Puerto Rican feminists were instrumental
to passage of the 1937 bill that legalized birth control
and sterilization in Puerto Rico. In fact, feminist leader
and Independista, Carmen Rivera de Alvarado, allowed
herself to be arrested to test the bill’s standing under federal
law. Also missing from the discourse was the history of
contentious struggles between Puerto Rican feminists and
the Catholic Church over the right to birth control on the
island. Interestingly, the church also framed the sterilization
debate in terms of U.S. imperialism.
This view is not meant to absolve the U.S. government
or capitalist’s interventions in Puerto Rico or other parts of
the world. It is rather to stress the need for greater complexity
in understanding the struggle of Puerto Rican
woman for reproductive rights, in the midst of neoconservative
rhetoric and changing social and material conditions.
Moreover, it bespeaks the caution that must be taken in
progressive efforts to universalize and authorize U.S. feminist
politics, by squeezing out a narrative from the bodies of
Puerto Rican women—many of whom have openly testified
that the decision to undergo la operación was an act of their
self-determination. Also, it calls for a politics of mobilization
and solidarity that refuses to homogenize the histories
of Puerto Rican women—opening the road to democratizing
the reproduction rights struggle in this country, at a time
when these rights are most under attack at the federal level.

This is a slightly modified version of an article that
appeared in Laura Briggs’s edited volume Reproducing
Empire: Race Sex, Science and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto
Rico (2002)

About Antonia Darder

Antonia Darder is a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She is a longtime Puerto Rican activist-scholar involved in issue's relating to education, language, immigrant workers, and women's rights.
This entry was posted in Healthcare, Human Rights, Latino/a, Women. Bookmark the permalink.

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