“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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  • earthymom

    This is a strange line to take as the Catholic Church *also* denounces sterilization! The Church preaches against all forms of artificial birth control so the idea that sterilization can save you from sin is preposterous… it is hugelyunfortunate that these women who might have had the joy of giving birth have been so poorly informed.

  • crowepps

    This is a strange line to take as the Catholic Church *also* denounces sterilization! The Church preaches against all forms of artificial birth control so the idea that sterilization can save you from sin is preposterous…

    Yes, but they’re talking about a flaw in the technicalities of how ‘sin’ is handled. If a woman was sterilized, she confessed it ONCE, did her penance and was forgiven, and since it was irreversible, never had to bring it up again – one incident, over and done.  If on the other hand a woman was on the pill, she had to confess that EVERY TIME and then was refused communion the entire time she was on the pill, which could be years and years and years.  With everybody in the community standing around able to see that she was on the priest’s naughty girl list.

    it is hugely unfortunate that these women who might have had the joy of giving birth have been so poorly informed.

    Since the paperwork for the sterilization was offered to women while they were in labor, they were probably already experiencing as much of the joy of giving birth as they could stand.  The idea of this nasty little conspiracy was that since their patients trusted them, their medical providers were the perfect people to lie and trick them into agreeing (so as to prevent the births of more American citizens that the racists felt were unacceptably brown).

  • elburto

    A system designed to keep men at the top of the pile, the whiter the better of course. And the bottom of that heap? Women, girls, the poor, the disenfranchised. Corruption abounds, secrecy is enforced by threatening victims and shaming them into silence. The ‘Big Three’ of christianity, judaism and islam thrive on the abuse and subjugation of women and girls. People in authority are engaging in sexual misconduct with children and vulnerable women, and forcing them into irreversible decisions like the cases mentioned here. An uprising is needed desperately.

  • jayjay26

    Am I the only one who likes this idea? I mean, the fact that sterilization is so widely available in PR is awesome! Can you imagine a world with no lazy people? Lived in PR many years, and worked hard to find out that my tax money was feeding generations of unemployed people who live off public assistance.  Tons of people in PR should not be allowed to reproduce, especially the ones who do not want to work.  Period.