This project examines the ways that Puerto Rican women’s fertility was discussed over time in the United States, and the ways in which these discussions influenced decisions regarding reproductive choices. Looking at articles from popular American publications reveals the way that Americans felt about Puerto Rican sterilization, which can be compared to publications from activist newsletters at the same time. Personal testimonies from Puerto Rican women who chose sterilization reveal that the way others spoke about sterilization was different from how the women themselves viewed it. Their stories also show how the circumstances women were forced to live in influenced their reproductive choices.
When Puerto Rico was colonized by the United States in 1898, living conditions were already dire. Jobs became scarce, and starvation and disease ran rampant on the island. The problem afflicting the island seemed obvious: overpopulation. Puerto Rico was a small island, with a population growing at a rate faster than the island could sustain. An immediate solution was increased migration to the mainland, and a long term solution was to lower the birth rate through contraceptive programs. The most popular form of contraception on the island eventually became sterilization, which was promoted and subsidized by the U.S. government through local public health institutions. In 1965, one-third of Puerto Rican women of child-bearing age had been sterilized, a rate ten times higher than that of white women.
In the post-WWII period, the Puerto Rican population in the United States grew exponentially due to labor migration. Puerto Rican women needed to work, which meant that they could no longer have large families. Many Puerto Rican women chose to be sterilized so that they would be better able to enter the workforce. In the 1970s, activist groups in the United States and Puerto Rico exposed the coercion Puerto Rican women faced when consenting to sterilization, and the Puerto Rican independence movement called sterilization programs a genocidal campaign. The opinions of Puerto Rican women who were most likely to choose sterilization were not put at the forefront of these arguments. Despite efforts to curb sterilization abuse in the Puerto Rican community, many women continued to seek sterilization through the twentieth century, and even today.