I’ve mentioned before that hippie immigrant Puerto Rican parents raised me in the US. One of the messages that was transmitted to me as a young Puerto Rican woman growing up was that the birth control pill kills Puerto Rican women. And it did.
Excuse me if I do not partake in all of the celebration of The 50th Anniversary of The Pill because from my perspective it is still very much a reminder of the exploitation and violation of human rights among Puerto Ricans (and Haitians, and working class women in general) that continues today. Ignoring this reality is easy. Yet, it is a part of my, our history that I can’t simply forget or overlook. If I choose to ignore this history I also choose to ignore the history of activism by members of my community that has helped to create change at an institutional level. Ignoring this reality and history also perpetuates the ideas that historically oppressed communities are not important in the work we do today.
There are some things I’m not ready to ignore or forge and many of those are the power of language. The adjectives used to describe members of my community are horrifying. I don’t care if it was how people spoke “in that time,” they were and remain inappropriate. To describe our homeland as “slums,” “jungles,” and our community as “undesirable,” “genetically inferior,” and “ignorant” is defendable? The ideology “that the poor, uneducated, women of Puerto Rico could follow the Pill regimen, then women anywhere in the world could too” is not condescending to you? Don’t be fooled. There was almost nothing that was “female controlled” or “empowering” about being a part of the trial for many participants, especially after they realized they were taking a medication that they did not know was not approved.
I remember reading the book Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill over a decade ago when I was in graduate school. The conversation we had as a group about the book shocked me. While I was sickened by the overt ethnocentrism, classism, ableism, xenophobia, and racism, other classmates were mostly intrigued by what the history was in the US. It was an extremely painful book for me to discuss with a group of 99 percent White people who viewed the history of my community as less than and Othered as fascinating. When I realized a yam in Mexico was a part of the early production of the pill and how the US obtained it, the inclusion of animal products that included pork and how some communities do not consume this product for various reasons, I was floored. Some classmates rolled their eyes at me as if I was making something out of nothing. To this day I’m surprised those people are now working within my community. I hope they have learned something over these ten years about the ways their thought processes isolated the people in the community they now try to provide services to. Engaging in these conversations continue to hurt.
Often, when I bring up this topic, I have people who say to me “but that was the ‘norm’ back then.” Just because it was/is the “norm” does not automatically make it “right.” Others have said to me “Look at how many people and families the pill as helped.” As if the lives of the women who were injured, died, or experienced some major side effects during the trials makes that ok. Who is thanking them? Who is remembering them? Then there are the “We need more of a biomedical model and not just a social one.” I don’t disagree, I just think that a biomedical model can also recognize how the field is constructed and given value by a society that gives it value (and money). I also think a biomedical model can be one that does not completely ignore a community response. Just because it has more money behind it does not make it better than other models.
On anniversaries such as these, I ask that we all take a moment and think about the people who have been directly impacted negatively during trials, especially when historically discussions are not comprehensive and exclude us. Also think about how pharmaceutical companies are still engaging in some questionable actions and continue to purchase land in Puerto Rico, which does bring jobs to the island, yet those jobs are not always permanent.
All these talks about Puerto Rico and our status, do people really think that big money corporations want to lose the ability to work in a “foreign” country with a completely different approach to taxes? Think about it and consider doing some research on your own.