In 1937, Puerto Rico enacted Law 116, the last eugenics sterilization law passed under United States territorial jurisdiction. It was not repealed until 1960. Yet the conditions for, and outcomes of, eugenics in Puerto Rico were established and assured not merely by Law 116, but by US colonialism. By 1925, owing to the 1898 US invasion and the subsequent devaluation of the peso and the dispossession of ranchers and farmers by US sugar interests, 70% of the Puerto Rican population was landless with 2% of the population owning 80% of the land. As they had elsewhere, US eugenicists seized on the resulting poverty, blaming overpopulation, and targeting poor women for sterilization and pharmaceutical experimentation. In 1976, the U.S Department of Health, Education, and Welfare reported that over 37% of women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico had been sterilized. The vast majority were in their twenties.
A prime mover of this outcome was Clarence Gamble, President of the Pennsylvania Birth Control Federation, founding member of the Human Betterment League and later of Birthright, heir to the Proctor & Gamble/Ivory Soap fortunes, and correspondent and colleague of Margaret Sanger. Through the years he was involved in initiatives in Israel, India, Hawaii, Egypt, Japan, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Pakistan, South Africa, and, in the US, Appalachia and the South, where he maintained that a reduction in the birthrate among African Americans was the solution to the region’s poverty.
In 1939, Gamble began flying Puerto Rican doctors to New York to learn the latest in sterilization techniques. Earlier in the decade he had staffed birth control clinics, established by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Puerto Rican Relief Administration, with his own fieldworkers and used them as sites for recruiting candidates for sterilization. Many of the women who submitted to tubal ligation were not made to understand that it was permanent. Some Gamble-supported facilities reported refusing admittance to women with who had given birth two or more times if they did not ‘consent’ to la operación. In 1968, roughly 30 years into Gamble’s involvement in Puerto Rico, women there had the highest sterilization rates in the world.
But sterilization was not Gamble’s only endeavor in Puerto Rico. He is equally notorious for his role in the subjection of poor women to medical experimentation. In the 1950s Doctors Gregory Pincus and John Rock began testing progesterone on women in Puerto Rico. Gamble expanded the distribution of oral progesterone, accepting donations from pharmaceutical companies who, unable to conduct trials in the US, bid for access to the women in his clinics. Visiting nurses and social workers were dispatched to housing projects in San Juan and to rural areas (Sanger referred to them as “your army of occupation”). The drug, which in considerably smaller doses would later come to be known simply as “The Pill,” was still experimental. Side effects, which included nausea, dizziness, headaches, were dismissed by researchers as psychological or blamed on Puerto Rican women themselves who were constructed as lacking the intellectual sophistication to follow directions. This particular racist and class-based trope was employed in almost every sterilization and population control campaign, either implicitly or explicitly. Deaths by pulmonary tuberculosis and congestive heart failure were likewise deemed irrelevant.
Briggs, L. (2002). Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Hartmann, B. (1999). Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control. Revised edition. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Ordover, N. (2003). American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Silliman, J., Fried, M., Ross, L., and Gutierrez, E. (2004). Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.