On the third Friday of Women’s History Month, we bring insight to a Latina pioneer in the medical and public health industry. Helen Rodriguez-Trias (1929-2001) was a Puerto Rican physician and advocate for the expansion of healthcare for marginalized persons (especially low income women and children of color). Her introduction to public health was mainly due to her advocacy work to end sterilization against women of color. In the United States and her native Puerto Rico, coerced sterilization has been occurring as early as the late 19th century.
Throughout the Eugenics movement, mental and physically disabled women were the initial targets because their genetic traits were deemed defective. As time moved forward, continued medical violence against women increased, and mainly affected the African American, Native Indian, and Puerto Rican populations. In Puerto Rico alone, a 1965 survey concluded that one-third of Puerto Rican mothers, aged 20-49 were sterilized. In the United States, Native women were sterilized without their knowledge or consent by the Indian Health Service in the 1960s and 70s, even after legislation was passed to protect women against these measures. African Americans, whose history of illegal scientific and medical experimentation is a long and brutal history, including the most controversial Tuskegee Syphilis Study, faced sterilization across the country, with North Carolina and Mississippi being some of the most pervasive against poor black women (also targeted within the prison system as well).
Forced sterilization is a violation of reproductive justice because the state should not be in control of selectively choosing marginalized groups of women to prevent reproduction without consent, based on race, socioeconomic status, and physical health.
Rodriguez-Trias founded the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, an organization whose mission is to reduce this violation against women of color in poverty as well as the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse. In 1993, she became the first Latina to be elected president of the American Public Health Association.