Puerto Rico, Where Sterilization of Women Became "La Operacion"
We do well to review the experiences of women in Puerto Rico when we want to understand why women must insist on women centered programs toward women's full economic and social rights. Even a broad range of reproductive health services with choices are not enough to improve women's status, but only one component of what we need.
Population policies, whether pronatalist or antinatalist, do not spring from the concerns, aspirations and will of women. Their imposition can only lead to great discontent among women and detrimental effects on their physical and mental health.
Puerto Rico, under the United States since 1898 when it was ceded by Spain, has long been a laboratory for U.S. initiated social, economic and cultural policies. Beginning in the late thirties, privately funded foundations based in the United States, and later, the Puerto Rican government, with U.S. government funds, have promoted sterilization of women as a way of limiting population growth. In the forties, just when women were joining the work force in large numbers as industrialization opened up job opportunities, sterilizations were provided at minimal or no cost. While women suffered from lack of safe, legal abortion services, other methods of contraception, day care services, and health care services, they were offered sterilizations.
The results of deliberate policies, more concerned with curbing population than with meeting women's and children's needs, were high regret rates among the unprecedented nearly forty percent of women who by 1968 were sterilized. More than one third of women surveyed did not know sterilizations were permanent! Many approached sterilization decisions from mistaken notions that sterilization would improve their health, sexual life or marriage relationship. Many found depression, complications of surgery and abandonment by husbands as unexpected results.
The facts are that Puerto Rico's problems were not solved by efforts at population control. Puerto Rican women and men are now embattled to prevent further spread of the HIV epidemic (an incidence second only to Washington, DC), the epidemics of violence, substance abuse and unemployment. Today few illusions exist that population control policies will solve the island's environmental, economic or social problems. Women still struggle for family planning, safe abortions and health care, but resist pressures to end their reproductive lives prematurely.