Transnational Reproductive Justice


additional keywords: population control, eugenics, feminist reproductive rights

“A feminist [inquiry] into anything entails, first, being curious about the creations of meanings for masculinites and femininities; second, taking seriously the conditions, ideas and actions of diverse women; but also; third, always tracking down what sorts of power are at work, in whose hands, and with what consequences. True, being a feminist investigator takes stamina” (Enloe 258).

“Birth control–individual choice, safe contraceptive methods, as well as abortions when necessary–is a fundamental prerequisite for the emancipation of women” (Davis 202).

News about the potential of male birth control being met with resistance based on their side effects calls attention to the side effects that birth control has had on women since the 1950s. Some say that male birth control has not been approved yet because the trial participants couldn’t deal with the side effects, while others claim that the side effects were much more dramatic than those experienced by women (so it’s not because they’re wimps). One of the concerns that this controversy brings up is a patriarchal assumption that men shouldn’t have to deal with birth control side effects because women can.

Around the same time this controversy came up, the scientific corroboration of birth control side effects on women (such as depression) was linked to a racist history of keeping birth control side effects a secret, mainly due to the methods for testing such side effects on women of color in the United States (and in Puerto Rico).

From “America’s Hidden History: The Eugenics Movement”


One of the complexities of birth control debates lies in the differentiation between the liberation that women can have in choosing when and how to procreate, and the suggestion that some women are more “fit” to have families than others. In “Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights,” Angela Davis unpacks the history of birth control advocates  in the early twentieth century, especially its relationship to the eugenics movement. As Davis indicates, “What was demanded as a ‘right’ for the privileged came to be interpreted as a ‘duty’ for the poor” (210). Thus, the movement was “robbed of its progressive potential advocating for people of color not the individual right to birth control, but rather the racist strategy of population control” (215). In the case of Puerto Rico, mass sterilization efforts and the testing of birth control methods were proposed and sponsored by the U.S. government since the 1930s to deal with the surplus of Puerto Ricans who were perceived as a burden for U.S. corporate interests.

Many of the women who were sterilized were not informed about any other methods, as some women recount in the documentary film La Operación. When other methods were brought in, women weren’t informed about the fact that they were being tested on them for the first time. In fact, 2004 marked a 50th anniversary for the first trials of birth control on Puerto Rican women without a fully informed consent. Puerto Rican professor of communication Lourdes Lugo-Ortiz calls it a “debate without women,” as press accounts from 1940-1977 missed the voices of the women affected. She also confirms Ana Maria García’s claim that sterilization was proposed as a solution to economic problems. While one might think this history is long gone, there are areas in which similar histories are not so distant.

Christina Ewig’s “Hijacking Feminism: Feminists, the Catholic Church, and the Family Planning Debacle in Peru” tells the story of a seemingly progressive governmental approach to family planning that targeted forced sterilization of poor and indigenous women in Peru during the 1990s. Ewig’s article highlights the dangerous potential of appropriation of feminist projects to serve the state, which is, as she notes,

“in many ways an old story of the instrumental use of women by national planners and international organizations as a means of controlling population growth and promoting economic development…in strikingly new global and national contexts that appeared to favor women’s reproductive rights” (Ewig 633-634).

Like Davis, Ewig traces the beginnings of population control ideologies to Malthusian economic models: “that population growth, if left unchecked, would outstrip agricultural capacity, leading to a general decline in world living standards” (636). These so-called standards were supposedly affected by poor, indigenous, or people of African descent, which motivated the promotion of population control for particular sectors of Peruvian society. Alberto Fujimori was celebrated for his progressive agenda in a global context, but in Peru, women are still fighting for retribution.

And lest we forget it, these kinds of struggles are not so distant. Consider the example of a 2014 news report on compensation for eugenics victims in North Carolina. In a class about Women and Technology, it is important to note how particular technologies can have unintended effects. On the other hand, it is also significant to focus on what other technologies are being used to empower those who’ve been affected by reproductive rights efforts, and who are ultimately asking for reproductive justice.


[Print] Works Cited:

Davis, Angela Y. “Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights.” Women, Race, & Class. New York: Vintage, 2011, pp. 202-221.

Enloe, Cynthia. “Feminism and War: Stopping Militarizers, Critiquing Power.” Feminism and War: Confronting US Imperialism, edited by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Minnie Bruce Pratt and Robin Riley, London: Zed Books, 2008, pp. 258-263.

Ewig, Christina. “Hijacking Global Feminism: Feminists, the Catholic Church, and the Family Planning Debacle in Peru.” Feminist Studies 32.3 (2006): 632-660.