Google’s Doodle honored Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trias on what would have been her 89th birthday last Saturday, July 7. Dr. Rodriguez Trias was a champion for public health and health education.
Rodriguez Trias was born in New York and grew up in Puerto Rico, completing her medical degree at the University of Puerto Rico. She established the first newborn care center on the Island, cutting the infant mortality rate at the hospital where she worked in half within three years.
After a decade in practice in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez Trias returned to New York and worked in the South Bronx, largely with the Puerto Rican community. She became the medical director of the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute and the first Latina president of the American Public Health Association.
Dr. Rodriguez Trias worked extensively with women’s and children’s health. One of the issues that was of greatest concern to her was reproductive rights. She was a founding member of both the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse and the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse. In 1979, she helped to draft legislation on sterilization rights.
The situation that brought the question of reproductive rights to Rodriguez Trias’s attention was “Law 116,” a law encouraging sterilization of women in Puerto Rico for the sake of reducing unemployment. Rodriguez Trias found that a large proportion of the women she served in Puerto Rico had been sterilized.
She also discovered that these women had in many cases had “the operation” without fully understanding or giving their consent. After her return to New York, continuing experiences of coerced sterilization caused her to work to end the practice.
Forced sterilization laws were common in the early part of the 20th century. Between 1907 and 1937, 32 states passed laws allowing involuntary sterilization of women who were judged to be “defective” or “feebleminded” or merely “dependent” — in other words, poor.
In 1936, “Law 116,” the last sterilization law in the United States, was passed in Puerto Rico. This law did not call for forced sterilization. However, it strongly encouraged sterilization. Passed a year before other forms of birth control became legal in Puerto Rico, Law 116 included provisions that gave sterilized women preference for industrial jobs. Rodriguez Trias found that many women did not understand that “the operation” was a permanent form of birth control. She also heard many stories of coercion. Women said they were encouraged to agree to sterilization while in labor, or told they couldn’t receive medical care unless they agreed. The operation was also free.
The law remained in place until 1960. By 1968, Puerto Rico had the highest percentage of sterilizations not just in the United States, but in the world. The chances of a Puerto Rican woman’s being sterilized were triple the chances of women living in the States. Estimates at the time suggest that more than one third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized. At that point, sterilization had become the norm in Puerto Rico.
A study in the 1990s found that women born in Puerto Rico but living in New York chose sterilization about as often as women living in Puerto Rico. But Dr. Rodriguez Trias saw that sterilization was not always an informed choice. Her experience led to updated laws requiring written consent to sterilization following presentation of clear information in the patient’s native language.
Dr. Rodriguez Trias continued to work for women’s rights, patients’ rights, and health education reform in the United States and abroad. She was instrumental in bringing awareness of the intersection between health care and inequality.