Birth Control in Puerto Rico

Date: 1960
Owner: Getty Images
Source Type: Images


This 1960 photograph shows women in Puerto Rico teaching birth control methods to other women. Birth control measures were first introduced to Puerto Rico in the 1920s by U.S. colonial elites who considered overpopulation to be the root of many of Puerto Rico's social problems, including poverty, disease, prostitution, and general delinquency. In the 1920s and 30s, however, birth control legislation in Puerto Rico received much of its support from Puerto Rican liberals, especially middle class feminists, who worked with overpopulationists and considered a form of "soft" eugenics as a means of improving the health of families and women, while also improving society as a whole by promoting the "right" sort of families (whites in the middle and upper classes). Many of these women also promoted more stringent eugenic measures, including forced sterilization of those people deemed unfit to reproduce.

Though condemned today as a racist science, eugenics in the 1930s was an alternative to the tenets of imperial tropical medicine, which constructed race as a byproduct of one's environment, and thus unchangeable. Eugenicists in Puerto Rico refocused the debate from race to class, with the idea that the poorest parts of the population could be improved by educating them in such things as birth control, which would ease the burden on families and prevent the social ills caused by overpopulation. Whereas tropical medicine conflated race, place, and disease, "soft" eugenics offered a progressive program that aimed to treat social and physical ills at the same time.

By the late 1930s, however, Puerto Rican eugenics became closer to the "hard" eugenics favored by the U.S., and was guided largely by U.S. efforts to protect their interests against the social threat posed by the lower classes. Contraceptives were thus distributed exclusively to the lowest classes, and sterilization of certain groups was made legal in 1939 (poverty, under this law, was considered a legitimate reason to sterilize).

Reference: Briggs, Laura. Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico.Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002.

CITATION: Walker, Hank. "Teaching Birth Contol Methods." 01 Oct 1960. Getty Images, Image #50662147.