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Lights and Shadows of US Birth Control Testing in Puerto Rico: History and Implications for Other Latin American Countries

January 24, 2022

Speaker: Benedetta Calandra, Associate Professor of Latin American History and History of US-Latin American Cultural Relations, University of Bergamo, Italy
Moderator: Professor Jacqueline Mazza, Senior Adjunct Professor of International Development, SAIS Europe

For the Bologna Institute of Policy Research’s first seminar of the spring semester, Benedetta Calandra of the University of Bergamo discussed her research on population control and birth control testing in Puerto Rico. Calandra’s research is the subject of her newest book, "Il corpo del Caribe: Le politiche sulla riproduzione tra Puerto Rico e Stati Uniti (1898-1993)”, which explores the paradox of birth control experiments in Puerto Rico during the mid-20th century.

Calandra began her lecture by discussing Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trías’ theories on birth control and population control. According to Dr. Rodriguez-Trías, birth control, although linked to population control, was also associated with advancing individual freedoms of women. Population control, on the other hand, is defined as governmental policies used to control the reproduction of social subjects. Calandra further elucidates the unique case of Puerto Rico in having experienced both a form of population control after sterilizations were legalized in the 1930’s, and a campaign of experiments in birth control during the 1950’s to prior to mass distribution of the first contraceptive pills in the United States. Her findings conclude that there was an interplay of coercion and personal choice during this time period, which resulted in about one third of the female population becoming sterile, one of the highest levels in the world.

Calandra also touched on the history of Puerto Rico through the lens of Historian Raymond Carr and Laura Briggs. After the 1898 Spanish-American War, Spain ceded its colony of Puerto Rico and it became an unincorporated territory of the United States. Though Puerto Rico was never granted U.S. statehood, it was integrated as “un estado libre asociado,” which left the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States largely undefined. Carr’s supposition on the relationship was that it left Puerto Rico in a constant state of ambiguity, and Briggs’ provocative conclusions were that the island represented “the most important place in the world”, a social laboratory of US imperial practices later spread on a larger scale.

Puerto Rico’s ambiguity played a significant role in why it was the site of the birth control experiments sponsored by Katherine Dexter McCormick, a philanthropist and U.S. suffragette, during the 1950’s. Calandra’s findings from letters sent by McCormick cite Puerto Rico’s ambiguity as the reason the FDA was able to turn a blind eye to her experiments. Though many negative side effects were linked to the birth control trials – pills that were much stronger than the ones that became licensed in the commercial market--, none of these side effects were