Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias – sterilization abuse
Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias (1929-2001)
M.D. – 1960, University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine
Specializations – pediatric medicine, teaching, social medicine
Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias was the first Latina President of the American Public Health Association and a throughout her career was nationally-known advocate for medically underserved communities. Dr. Rodriguez-Trias was also a founding member of the Women’s Caucus of the American Public Health Association (1971), the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, and the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (1979).
Helen Rodriguez-Trias, M.D.
courtesy of: JoEllen Brainin-Rodriguez M.D.
photograph by Rafael Pesquera
Moved by statistics like the fact that 30% of women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico had been sterilized with 30 years of a brutal population control campaign, and by stories like that of the Relf sisters and other young women who had suffered sterilization abuses and been denied full information about their reproductive choices, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias worked throughout her career to raise consciousness, form coalitions, apply pressure to policy makers, and open up new possibilities and access to reproductive freedoms for all women (Krase 1996).
In the early 1970’s, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias was invited by a New York University Law School student organization to give a short talk about Puerto Rican sterilization abuse after viewing a related film. After her talk, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias was approached by a handful of audience members. Some were hospital workers who recalled stories of minority and disadvantaged women where were coerced into signing sterilization consent forms. Full information on the procedure and its alternatives was not provided. The case of a young woman, incarcerated by the New York City Police, was brought up in discussion. While being detained, the woman discovered she was pregnant and wished to have an abortion. She was taken to a public city hospital for the procedure. During counseling for the abortion, sterilization was offered as the best prevention of future unwanted pregnancies. Uninformed and misled, the young woman signed the papers and later regretted the procedure. (Krase 1996)
As one of the founding members of the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, described the opposition they faced from the mainstream women’s movement around sterilization reform and how this played out at a 1974 conference held in Boston which was attended by thousands of women.
“We had a panel on sterilization abuse, which had to do with disrespect for women’s needs, wishes, and hopes. We brought up the Relf suit, brought on behalf of 2 Black, allegedly retarded girls, Minnie Lee Relf, age 12, and Mary Alice Relf, age 14, who had been sterilized without their knowledge or consent in a federally funded program in Montgomery, Alabama.The Southern Poverty Law Center found out about the girls, and interviewed the mother, who said she thought she was consenting to the girls’ getting a contraceptive. She signed the consent form with an X because she couldn’t read and write. The case went to federal court, which said there was incontrovertible evidence that sterilization abuse was taking place, that some sterilization abuse was being subsidized by the government, and enjoined HEW [US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare] to come up with guidelines to prevent sterilization abuse.”
“We got a lot of flack from White women who had private doctors and wanted to be sterilized,” she said. “They had been denied their request for sterilization because of their status (unmarried), or the number of their children (usually the doctor thought they had too few). They therefore opposed a waiting period or any other regulation that they interpreted as limiting access . . . While young white middle class women were denied their requests for sterilization, low income women of certain ethnicity were misled or coerced into them” (Wilcox 2002)
Helen Rodriguez-Trias speaking at an abortion rights rally, 1970s
courtesy of: JoEllen Brainin-Rodriguez M.D.
Excerpts from an interview with Dr. Rodriguez Trias:
What was my biggest obstacle?
A watershed in my life was getting divorced in Puerto Rico—that was my second marriage—and leaving Puerto Rico to become part of the women’s movement. In my formation as a professional, there was always a kind of pressure to deny or not use a lot of your personal experience. The science of medicine, to some degree, negates the human, feeling, experiential part of it. But I was now discovering a whole other world out there through my personal experience of a deceptive marriage. That triggered quite a bit of growth in me toward understanding what happens internally to people, what happens in their lives and what they can do or not do…So I went back to New York and I got very involved in reproductive rights. I began to join in the women’s movement. At Barnard College there was a conference called the First International Conference on Abortion Rights that was attended by a few thousand women…We organized one of the first consciousness-raising groups of Latino women…A number of incredible things emerged from women talking about their experiences…We shared and we became very bonded. That was the beginning of my identification with women’s issues and reproductive health.
Who was my mentor?
Dr. Rodriguez-Trias has said, she was inspired by “the experience of [my] own mother, my aunts and sisters, who faced so many restraints in their struggle to flower and realize their full potential.”
Serena Sebring - last update: November 25, 2007
Krase, Katherine. 1996. “Organizing for Change: Sterilization Abuse.” First published in the Jan/Feb 1996 newsletter of the National Women’s Health Network. Available online at the Our Bodies Ourselves Health Resource Center. <http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book/companion.asp?id=32&compID=55&page=1> Accessed: November 19, 2007.
National Library of Medicine. 2004. “Biography: Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias” Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America’s Women Physicians. Available online: Accessed on: November 25, 2007.
Wilcox, Joyce. 2002. “The Face of Women’s Health: Helen Rodriguez-Trias.” American Journal of Public Health 92(4): 566-569.
~ by Serena on November 25, 2007.
Posted in Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, consent, Helen Rodriguez-Trias, Puerto Rico, Relf sisters, sterilization abuse, sterilization guidelines
Tags: Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, Helen Rodriguez-Trias, HEW, mississippi appendectomy, New York, Relf sisters