Spring 2022

Bodily Autonomy, Reproductive Justice, and the legacies of U.S. Genocide

What we have in the potential reversal of Roe represents a new form of state violence born out of a different sort of anxiety around the body politic, one that seeks to alleviate doubts around the interests of men and, at a deeper level, the infrastructure of white supremacy.

by Michael E. Carter

“In the occupied countries of ‘people of non-related blood’, a policy of depopulation is pursued,” stated Raphael Lemkin. A Polish lawyer and Jew who escaped Nazi expansionism, Lemkin wrote Axis Rule in Occupied Europe to describe what he dubbed the “biological” technique of “genocide”—a word he coined in the same publication.[1] The term has since been refined in international law to mean the destruction of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. In 1946, he would explain that he considered forced sterilization as much a technique of genocide as “killing” and “mayhem.”[2]

Lemkin was recounting one of the techniques utilized during The Holocaust; the most infamous collection of mass murders motivated in-part by the pseudoscience of eugenics. As Francis Galton, one of its founders, explained eugenics as “the idea that a carefully controlled program of human breeding can improve society.” According to eugenic proponents, traits ranging from afflictions such as drunkenness, qualities such as courage, financial status like poverty or business success, and social status like being a criminal could all be settled as a matter of proper lineage.[3] In the United States, Galton fanatic Charles Davenport described his commitment to eugenics in terms of religion. “Do you agree that this the highest aim of the species?,” Davenport asked listeners. “Have you the instinct of love of the race? If so then for you, eugenics may be vital and a religion that may determine your behavior.”[4] While the global reach of the eugenics included, for example, a diverse group of African Americans who saw the movement as a form of racial improvement, white supremacist eugenicists determined that their selective breeding, or the prevention there of unfit breeding, could be used to dilute undesirable races.

The “Tree of Eugenics” logo designed to visualize eugenic ideas from the Second Eugenics Congress in 1921. Image via Wikimedia

Once such case study in American history for sterilization abuse can be seen on the island of Puerto Rico. At the dawn of the twentieth century, amid America’s age of imperialism, the U.S. invaded several overseas territories including Puerto Rico. Mainland whites viewed almost all problems on the island in terms of an impending population explosion. Contemporary observers of the Puerto Rican sugar industry declared that overpopulation was the island’s most serious problem, which they imagined “combines with other elements in the social situation to create a state of social friction and unrest.”[5] This rhetoric played directly into the hands of eugenicists and other overpopulation alarmists.

For example, in 1921, lawyer Theodore Schroeder wrote that all manner of ills were related to the overpopulation of Puerto Ricans, and he even disagreed with American health policy for decreasing the death rate. Championing the cause of a higher death rate in a hypothetical food riot, he declared that “the best method of solving the problem, but if the time for machine guns should ever come where will be major responsibility lie?” For Schroeder, maintaining high mortality rates on the island prevented such overt colonial unrest.[6]

Reproductive rights advocate and scholar Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, who helped analyze and expose eugenic efforts in Puerto Rico. Image via Wikimedia.

In 1947, following the Second World War and amid the struggles of the Nationalist Party, the U.S. forced changes to the colonial Puerto Rican economy that drove up unemployment.[7] This, in turn, created the alleged “excess population” that was used to further justify their preexisting overpopulation theories.[8] According to Puerto Rican reproductive rights activist Dr. Helen Rodríguez-Trías, “tens of thousands of women” entered employment while the factories acted as complicit actors in the wider sterilization efforts. She continued that “[m]isinformation to women on the permanency and complications of sterilization as well as” as well as scarce alternatives “combined to push hundreds of thousands of women into ‘la operación.’”[9] When interviewed, one victim explained that the procedure was necessary to find work outside the home while another testified that it was “in style” and that propaganda ranging from school books to word of mouth illustrated that a “small family meant progress.”[10] According to a study published in 1969, approximately one-third of all Puerto Rican mothers, within the age range of 20 to 49 in 1965, had been sterilized—that number was double what it was a decade prior. On average, the women were in their mid-twenties with six years of marriage and two or three children at the time of the procedure.[11]

While the government link to private organizations and manufacturers complicity in ‘la operación’ may appear largely circumstantial, it was nonetheless heavily influenced by the machinations of the colonial regime. So much so that, on September 20, 1967, an assembly at the State Department entitled “Population Training Meeting” had a diverse attendance including one Dr. Reimart T. Ravenholt, Director of the Office of Population at U.S. Agency of International Development.[12] This is clear evidence of Ravenholt’s broad interdepartmental involvement on the issue of population control. A decade later, on April 22, Ravenholt spoke with the St. Louis Post Dispatch in which he admitted that it was foreign policy to sterilize up to one-hundred million women worldwide. In part, to protect “normal operation of U.S. commercial interests” from disruptions such as rebellion and revolution.[13] Interestingly enough, in his zealotry, Ravenholt disclosed details of a then-classified memorandum from 1974 which blamed overpopulation for numerous threats to U.S. economic interests worldwide such as “unemployment, petty thievery, organized brigandry, foot riots, separatist movements, communal massacres, revolutionary actions and counter revolutionary coupe.” Furthermore, in that same report, Puerto Rico was listed among other Caribbean islands with “promising family planning programs.”[14]

Puerto Ricans long protested the U.S. support of forced and coerced sterilization. Image via the Daily Kos.

Critic of population control and capitalism in Latin America Ellen Bonnie Mass did not mince words in her 1976 book Population Target when she wrote, “With [USAID’s] emphasis upon population control, the logical effort in poor regions of the world has been lowering of the birth rate and a rising death rate. In human terms, the result has been genocidal.”[15] While the exact appropriateness regarding the term “genocide” can be debated, certain realities are unquestionable. There was misinformation and propaganda about sterilization abound in Puerto Rico which victimized hundreds of thousands of women. According to historian of medicine Ian Dowbiggen, “When calls for expanded family-planning services throughout the developing world are couched in alarmist language that highlights runaway population growth…confusion between coercion and consent is bound to flourish.”[16] And amid the proliferation of misunderstanding, came profit and an effort to protect that profit on a global scale.

Accounts of sterilization abuse are episodes in the long and diverse history of American reproductive injustice. That history has become prominent culturally and all the more essential now that the United States Supreme Court, as revealed by Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked ruling draft, may very well overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey despite pre-confirmation testimony that it was settled law. Buried within the draft was a shortlist of other cases that could equally be invalidated due their precedent cases. One of those cases is Skinner v. Oklahoma, which the draft describes as upholding “the right not to be sterilized without consent”—a right central to guarding against the covert malpractice of sterilization abuse. On top of the loss of numerous other privacy-based rights, this reality should stun every American to their core.

As recognized by Lemkin in 1944 such a malicious assault on reproductive rights could easily become the tactic of a malicious government. The specter of eugenics, in rhetoric and in practice, still haunts the fringes of American ideological thought even though no reasonable individual believes that consensual abortion or sterilization is part of any genocidal plan. To the contrary, when these procedures are forced or coerced these actions become unquestionable instances of state violence. The potential repeal of Roe brings with it precisely this landscape of surveillance and state violence.

Beyond the island of Puerto Rico, throughout the last century and around the world, the history is well-documented on the issue of genocide by scalpel. From that vantage point, what we have in the potential reversal of Roe represents a new form of state violence born out of a different sort of anxiety around the body politic, one that seeks to alleviate doubts around the interests of men and, at a deeper level, the infrastructure of white supremacy. We cannot know what a post-Roe future will bring, but if America’s history of violence is any indication, it is one poised to bring untold suffering to benefit those with wealth and power.

Michael E. Carter is an Americanist Historian and Genocide Scholar who is an Adjunct Professor of History at Kean University. He specializes in the history of genocide on the American continents, particularly the destruction of Native American nations, as well as genocide recognition, transitional justice, and sterilization abuse as genocide. This article is derived from secondary source and archival research conducted for his 2018 Master’s Thesis: “Genocidal Sterilization in Twentieth Century Puerto Rico”. His other work including articles, podcasts, and conference papers can be found on his website (https://michael-edward-carter.com/). Michael can also be followed on Twitter (@DeckofCarter).

Further Reading

[1] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress 2nd Edition (Clark: The Lawbook Exchange, 2008), 86.

[2] Raphael Lemkin, “Genocide Before the U.N.: Importance of Resolution Declaring Crime International Is Stressed,” The New York Times, November 6, 1946.

[3] Brian Regal, Pseudoscience: A Critical Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2009), 59-60.

[4] Charles Davenport, “Eugenics as a Religion,” 1916, Mss.B.D27, Box 25, Charles Benedict Davenport Papers, American Philosophical Society Digital Library, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States.

[5] Arthur D. Gayer, Paul T. Horman, and Earle K James, The Sugar Economy of Puerto Rico (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938), 10.

[6] Theodore Schroeder, “Porto Rico’s Population Problem,” Birth Control Review 16, no. 3 (March 1932): 72.

[7] Department of Latin America and Puerto Rican Studies, “Operation: Bootstrap,” Lehman College, n.d.

[8] Ana María García, La Operación, Film, produced and directed by Latin American Film Project (1982; Puerto Rico: Skylight Pictures), 15:33-40.

[9] The economic crisis and the reproductive rights of Puerto Rican women, Undated, Box 2, Folder 4, The Helen Rodríguez-Trías Papers, Centro Library and Archives, Hunter College, New York, New York, United States.

[10] García, 8:47-9:07; 10:06-11:00.

[11] Harriet B. Presser, “The Role of Sterilization in Controlling Puerto Rican Fertility,” Population Studies 23, no. 3 (November 1969): 78-9.

[12] “Minutes of Population Training Meeting,” Department of State, September 20, 1967. Central Files, 1914-1969. 1963-1968. Research Group 102. Box 1144. File Number 4-4-1-1-9; National Archives at College Park, College Park, Maryland, United States.  

[13] Paul Wagman, “U.S. Program To Sterilize Millions,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 22, 1977, 1; 10.

[14] U.S. National Security Council. Implications of Worldwide Population Growth For U.S. Security and Overseas Interests: The Kissinger Report, by Harry C. Blaney, III. Washington: Government Printing Office, December 10, 1974. (National Security Study Memorandum 200). (NSSM 200).

[15] Bonnie Mass, Population Target: The Political Economy of Population Control in Latin America (Toronto: Latin American Working Group, 1976), 113.

[16] Ian R. Dowbiggin, The Sterilization Movement and Global Fertility in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 12.

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