For Latinas, A Fine Line Between Reproductive Justice and Eugenics

The advent of the birth control pill and legalized abortion were watershed moments for the U.S. feminist movement. At the same time, these advances continue to be bound to the race, class and economic status of those who have access to reproductive technologies.

U.S. Latinas and Chicanas, along with Native American and African American women, have a very complicated history with state policies about our reproductive practices. Chicana and Latina bodies often bear the brunt of the blame for “overpopulation” and “hyper-reproductive” capacities–and that blame is based on eugenics, the policing of the reproduction of those “less desirable” races in favor of creating a “superior” white race.

Today, conservatives in the U.S. claim that immigrant women have “anchor” babies or “jackpot” babies that will “act as an anchor that pulls the illegal alien mother and eventually a host of other relatives into permanent U.S. residency.”

Not only does the theory of the anchor baby frame the Latina body as “uncontrollable” in its reproduction, but it also criminalizes women for having children and, therefore, accessing social services. The implication is that all Latina women are not citizens, have too many children, can’t control their sex drives, have children to access U.S. citizenship by proxy and are to blame for the overtaxing of the U.S. welfare system. This could not be further from the truth.

These ideas about Latina women’s bodies and hyper-reproduction are not new. Feminist historians such as Elena Gutierrez, Natalia Molina and Laura Briggs have all documented how the state has long targeted Puerto Rican women and women of Mexican origin. Public health policies were often designed to demean and discipline the bodies of Latina women, casting their sexualities as “deviant.” The colonial desire to supposedly “save these women from themselves”–in actuality, to save the state from welfare costs–are localized in the figure of what Gutíerrez has called “the hyper-fertile baby machine.”

Most people don’t know that the birth control pill was first tested in 1957 on 132 women in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, three of whom died during the trial. Previously, in the 1920s and 1930s, scientists such as Raymond Pearl and Clarence Gamble, along with middle- and upper-class Puerto Rican elites, had raised money to fund eugenics-minded scientific experimentation that included the sterilization of women on the island to correct the problem of overpopulation.

The culture of poverty thesis–that certain groups are inherently prone to poverty–or the notion of the welfare queen (the Moynihan report’s finding that the black woman is the downfall of the black family and therefore responsible for its poverty), drove the mid-20th-century eugenics campaign in Puerto Rico. Even though the first Pill trials were performed on middle-class professional women who volunteered for the study, documentary filmmaker Ana María García’s film La Operación/The Operation (1982) shows that the pill was also tested in one of the poorest barrios of San Juan, La Perla.

One-third of Puerto Rican women on the island were sterilized because propagandist campaigns made sterilization fashionable without discussing the long-term consequences of the procedure (infertility). Garcia’s film suggests that poor Latina women’s bodies were a literal colonial laboratory; Puerto Rico is, after all, a U.S. colonial possession.

While my generation and those that have followed have clearly benefited from technologies such as the birth control pill, in vitro fertilization and abortion, I review the above history to remind us that these modern marvels were often tested on the bodies of women of color. Historically, there has been a very fine line between reproductive social justice and technologies being used to control our bodies.

There are amazing groups that focus on health and social justice for Latinas, including the National Latina Health Organization. Yet, I can’t help but think of a recent visit to the gynecologist (not my usual one, but an affiliate in the practice at the University Medical Center in Tucson), at which the doctor kept insisting that I consider an IUD even though I am unmarried and have no children. As a recently tenured faculty member with a hyphenated “Latino” name, this unwavering persistence that I need an IUD–or, rather, am a good candidate for one–and therefore not needing to reproduce, suggests that reproductive racism is alive and well, even for an Ivy-league educated Chicana. It makes me wonder how many other Latinas, educated or not, are being pushed to control their reproduction with this subtle racism that is the dark underbelly of reproductive justice.

Poster by LegislateTHIS, a Georgia-based reproductive justice organization.

Visit to read more posts like this, go and lobby for contraception to be covered by insurance under the new health care program here.


    1. What's wrong with an IUD?

      • There is nothing wrong with an IUD. The point is that racism exists to this day and the medical industry targets a specific race based on fertility stereotypes.

    2. Ouyang Dan says:

      Yes. You would need to expand that thought. There are great benefits to an IUD, and it is immediately reversible as soon as you want it to be. You can have one even if you have never had children, and even if you are unmarried, as long as you take care of yourself. There are a lot of myths that surround the IUD, and statements like yours aren't helping.

      It makes it difficult for people like me, who can't use other forms of birth control because of severe medical concerns, to get them from medical professionals, because they believe myths like that. It is safe and reversible, and comes in both hormonal and non-hormonal, and can last five or ten years if you want it to. It is the number one form of birth control used in the world, even though women in North America are afraid of it. Higher up-front cost, but over time is actually cheaper if you can handle the up-front. Just because it lasts for a long time doesn't mean it has to. It reverses faster than the pill, the ring, the patch, the shot, and just about anything else except condoms, and has the lowest failure rate next to abstinence. Maybe that doctor was really just looking out for you, and trying to offer you facts about a form of safe, quality, more affordable birth control that has been given a bad rap for a long time.

      Please don't spread myths about present-day birth control while writing a great story about the racially tainted history of reproductive justice. You do it a disservice.

    3. Thank you Ouyang Dan. You are absolutely correct. It would be nice if everyone did a fact check before posting inaccurate health information. I agree with Nicole Guidotti-Hernández in that racial bias can influence medical care, not on her point that most health care providers have a bias against reproductive freedom? IUD's are very safe, provide many non-contraceptive benefits and allow a woman to guide her future without the added stress of caring for children. Children are wonderful and deserve much attention. Attention that detracts from forward movement and education of an oppressed group of women. Personally, if I could put an IUD in every one of my friends and students I would do so. That way they could complete their educational and career dreams, and then start a family when they choose. What's the push to have so many children without control over the situation? Anyhow, I speak from experience as a minority woman. Reversible contraception has allowed me to have a successful career in health care advocacy and research for underserved women's health. Now, I can help my existing family or start a new one of my own if I choose.

    4. I don't know if this is meant by the comment about the IUD, but I have experienced, as a woman of colour, the assumption that I cannot be trusted to take the pill responsibly. When I went to get the pill at the school health clinic, the doctor repeatedly emphasized that you have to remember to take it every day at the same time, and if you can't handle that she would recommend other means…not just as a suggestion, but she kept pushing it and pushing it and really making the point that I wouldn't be able to remember and it really wasn't for me. Since this was the school clinic, other friends had been to this doctor and none of the white ones had experienced this kind of difficulty.

    5. The author did not say that the IUD was unsafe or that it was ineffective. Instead, she questioned why her doctor wanted her to use birth control – despite the fact that she has no kids and is a single woman.

      Clearly the author believes she knows how to prevent conception. She might even be a lesbian – for whom an IUD is unnecessary. Nonetheless, the doctor insists that she use birth control. Why?

    6. I think everybody is missing the point of this article. I dont think Nicole meant to emphasize IUD's or mention anything bad about birth control. The point is to look at the history of birth control and how it affected and continues to affect communities of color.

    7. I have the IUD and it is a pain to have. I constantly get yeast infections and my gynecologist says I will bleed heavily when they remove it.

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