Eugenics is defined as the study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding. Puerto Rico has the highest rate of female sterilization in the world. By 1965, thirty-five percent of Puerto Rican women ages 20-49 had been coerced into irreversible sterilization as part of a government campaign to control the growing number of the islands poor and working class population. This mass eugenics program was funded by the U.S. and fully supported by the Puerto Rican government from the 1930s through the late 1970s. Government propaganda made the procedure so common place that it became known simply as “la operacion.”
In 1937, contraceptives, which had been illegal in the mainly Catholic colony, were legalized as a step in the eugenics plan developed by the United States. Hundreds of birth control clinics were opened but rather than educate women about the various family planning methods that existed, it was the policy to push sterilization as the best or only option because medical officials felt that alternatives were too complicated for less educated women. This was even supported by the Catholic Church which felt sterilization could be medically justified as necessary, unlike condoms or oral contraceptives.
The eugenics campaign was institutionalized. Propaganda in the media and public schools pushed the idea of one or two-child families as the only way to financial success. Employer discrimination against unsterilized women was legal and rampant. Medical clinics were opened inside of factories so women would not have to miss a full day of work to have the procedure done.
Women were pressured immediately after giving birth by offering longer hospital stays and government subsidies. Representatives went door-to-door in low-income neighborhoods to compel women to have the free/low cost procedure and thereby avoid abortions. The cruelest offense; however, was that women were not informed that the procedure was irreversible. The popular euphemism “tying the tubes” led many to believe that when or if they desired a child they could just untie them.
The 1982 documentary, “La Operacion,” provides first hand accounts of the sterilization program in Puerto Rico and USA. In the city of Barceloneta where 20,000 women were sterilized over a twenty year period, the mayor proudly boasts to the camera that his factories are filled with women and multiple schools have closed because there are no new children to enroll.
Charlotte Melanie is a staff writer at BeingLatino.
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