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

January 24, 2022 - 18:30

Benedetta Calandra, University of Bergamo, Italy

Event Recap

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 ever thoroughly investigated or reported. Calandra argues that McCormick was more focused on the "cost-benefit thinking" of developing birth control, rather than being concerned with the consequences of the trials and how they would affect Puerto Rican women. In brief, Calandra's research draws attention to the paradox of the birth control experiments in Puerto Rico, which sought to liberate women's bodies at the expense of other women's bodies. At the end of the lecture, Prof. Calandra focused on another controversial case-study for birth control during the early 1960s: Bolivia.

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

hosted by Professor Jacqueline Mazza

Benedetta Calandra
University of Bergamo, Italy

The event will be held only virtually. Please register for the online webinar using the link below.

Benedetta Calandra is Associate Professor for History of Latin America and History of US-Latin American Cultural Relations at the University of Bergamo, Italy.

From 2016 to 2018 Calandra held the position of Associate Fellow at Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe. From 2018 to 2021, she was a member of the Executive Board of the Italian Society for International History (SISI) and, since 2014, a member of the Scientific Committee of the InterUniversity Center for American History and Politics (CISPEA).

Calandra holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Rome (2005) and an MA in Latin American Studies from the University of London (2000).

Calandra's main research interests are in inter-American relations, cultural Cold War, gender and politics, human rights and reproductive rights in contemporary Latin America.

Her recent publications include: Il Corpo del Caribe: le politiche sulla riproduzione tra Puerto Rico e Stati Uniti (1898-1993), ombre corte, Americane, Verona, 2020; Cultural Philanthropy And Political Exile: The Ford Foundation Between Argentina And The United States (1959-1979) Revista Tempo, 2019 It Is Not a Part of American History That We Are Proud of: Declassification Projects in the United States (1993–2002) in Eugenia Allier-Montaño and Emilio Crenzel (eds). The Struggle for Memory in Latin America: Recent History and Political Violence, New York, Palgrave MacMillan (2015).
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