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"La Operación:" How the Church Contributed to Sterilization Abuse in Puerto Rico

Cross-posted from the National Women's Law Center’s online publication, Womenstake.

Last week, On Faith, a column in the Washington Post, had an article on sterilization abuse in Puerto Rico. I certainly knew about the role of the U.S. Government (and Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger) in promoting sterilization in an effort to reduce fertility rates among Puerto Ricans. The goal was to limit the number of those on the island who would exercise their right to automatic U.S. citizenship. The Reproductive Justice Movement exists to fight such oppressive attempts to limit childbearing among Women of Color.

But this article makes a point I had never considered: The Catholic Church’s opposition to the Pill made irreversible sterilization a more morally-acceptable choice than taking oral contraceptives. As noted by the author, Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, director of Brooklyn College's Center for Study of Religion in Society and Culture:   

Using the “pill” was characterized as a continual sin that required the constant withholding of communion. Submitting to “the operation,” on the other hand, was a one-time offense that could be confessed and then allow regular communion. Moreover, the proponents of sterilization also disguised it as “medical advice” anticipating that ordinary women would not challenge the authority of the professional class. The government often relied on subterfuge like asking a woman in child labor to sign a paper that “guaranteed that she would never have to undergo this pain again.”

The Catholic Church inadvertently created an environment in which women were more willing to be permanently deprived of their right to bear children rather than risk committing a continuous offense against the Church. This environment also made it easier for medical authorities to deceive women into “consenting” to the operation. The Church’s position resulted not only in more sterilizations, but in furthering racists, classist and xenophobic aims.

Furthermore, despite the fact that the pill was unethically tested on women in Puerto Rico (also with the support of the U.S. Government) once it was actually found to be safe and effective, the vast majority Puerto Rican women did not benefit from it.  Considering the current war on contraception, Stevens-Arroyo ends on this cautionary note:

Take care that preaching against the liberal idea of “reproductive rights” does not wind up promoting worse moral consequences. With huge imbalances in the current budget where the poor and declining middle-class face cutbacks in jobs and services, population control is likely to make a comeback. I’m not saying that mass sterilization of women will necessarily become an acceptable option in the USA, but we would be foolish to think it impossible.

Foolish indeed…


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