Coloniality and Reproductive Coercion in Puerto Rico in Light of the End of Roe v. Wade

From the Series: After Roe

Bans Off Our Bodies NYC. May 14, 2022. Photo by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Currently, Puerto Rico is technically unaffected by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The Puerto Rican Supreme Court ruling in The People of Puerto Rico v. Pablo Duarte Mendoza (1980) ruled in favor of Mendoza who performed an abortion on a minor, reconfirming access to abortion under the right to intimacy as stipulated in the Puerto Rican Penal Code (109 D.P.R. 596, 1980). In practice, the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling will undoubtedly have consequences for the archipelago, as it will across the rest of the United States.

Reproductive decision-making for Puerto Ricans cannot be separated from the politics of colonialism and oppression. As María Lugones writes, colonial impositions impact the bodies of Black and Brown people in “every aspect of their existence” (2008, 77). To fully understand the implications of the overturning of Roe v. Wade for Puerto Rico, the Dobbs v. Jackson WHO ruling and its regulatory effects on gestating bodies in Puerto Rico must be explored through a reproductive justice framework. Indeed, if all politics are, in fact, reproductive politics (Briggs 2017), the colonial status of Puerto Rico is directly connected to the management and control of reproduction.

After Puerto Rico was passed from the imperial power of Spain to the United States in 1898, the United States implemented laws and policies targeted at the control of the archipelago’s population. In 1937, neo-Malthusian and eugenic ideology facilitated an amendment to the Puerto Rican penal code, effectively legalizing abortion in the archipelago. This reform enabled the clinical pill trials of contraceptive technologies in the 1940s, to the detriment of working-class Puerto Ricans (Briggs 2003; Preciado 2013; Sánchez-Rivera 2020). Throughout the twentieth century, population control measures saw the forced and coerced sterilization of many Puerto Ricans as a eugenic practice. Nonetheless, as Iris López (2008, 18) states, the “stigma associated with abortion limited the reproductive choices and induced many women to accept sterilization, which was legal and more socially accepted.”

During the first half of the twentieth century, population control measures, eugenic practices, and concerns about the “race suicide” of Whites contributed to the criminalization of abortion in the United States. Consequently, White women with means began traveling from the United States to seek abortion services in Puerto Rico. The practice became so common by the 1960s that it was colloquially known as a “San Juan vacation.” Thus, the same population control policies and measures that aimed to stop Puerto Ricans from reproducing also encouraged White women in the United States to seek abortion services there. As Dorothy Roberts (2022) notes, “abortion and sterilization are not contradictory but coordinated policies,” as both operate as a way of coercing and controlling gestating bodies.

After the Dobbs ruling, the “San Juan vacation” will inevitably be back in business. Will a poverty-stricken archipelago bear the brunt of accommodating abortion-seeking bodies from the United States? But instead of framing Puerto Rico as merely a safe haven for White American abortion-seekers, it is important to acknowledge the long history of reproductive injustices in Puerto Rico and to think critically about the legality of abortion in this context.

As part of colonialist population control efforts in Puerto Rico, a coordinated campaign in the mid-twentieth century incentivized Puerto Rican migration under precarious conditions to the United States, where they became part of the US working class (Findlay 2014). Puerto Rican communities in the United States will inevitably be among those suffering the most damaging consequences of the Dobbs ruling.

At the same time, although some may be reticent to admit it, many Puerto Rican inhabitants look up to the United States as a model of sociability, modernity, and progress. This internalized colonialism is connected to the aggressive persecution of those who advocated for Puerto Rican independence. Contemporarily, anti-choice movements and individuals on the island have taken it upon themselves to fight through policy, social media, and other methods against Puerto Rico’s abortion laws. The political party Proyecto Dignidad, for example, is “a far-right, Christian-led political party, [that] has introduced 12 bills aimed at limiting the healthcare procedure [this year alone]. Each of the proposals resemble, almost identically, anti-choice legislation that has recently passed in U.S. states” (Reichard 2022, 5). The ideologies of US and Puerto Rican anti-choice movements carry with them religious and moralistic connotations aiming to manage and control gestating bodies. Thus, in alignment with the policies of current imperial power and as a response to local fundamentalist groups and individuals, Puerto Ricans may yet face threats to their reproductive autonomy.

By applying a reproductive justice framework, we can better understand the links between coloniality and reproductive coercion in the colonial setting of Puerto Rico. The case of Puerto Rico demonstrates how and why reproductive justice is key to understanding the complex dynamics behind “choice” that go beyond the legality or illegality of abortion. At the same time, the history of Puerto Rico cannot be appreciated without incorporating a focus on the control of reproduction.


Briggs, Laura. 2003. Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Briggs, Laura. 2017. How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Findlay, Eileen. 2014. We Are Left without a Father Here: Masculinity, Domesticity, and Migration in Postwar Puerto Rico. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

López, Iris. 2008. Matters of Choice: Puerto Rican Women’s Struggle for Reproductive Freedom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Lugones, Maria. 2008. “Colonialidad y género.” Tabula Rasa 9: 73–102.

Preciado, Paul B. 2013. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. New York: Feminist Press and City University of New York.

Reichard, Raquel. 2022. “What Will the Roe v. Wade Decision Mean for Puerto Rico?Refinery 29, June 16, 2022.

Roberts, Dorothy. 2022. “Policing Black Women’s Health in the US.” Virtual lecture presented Wednesday, June 8, 2022. Reproductive Justice Research Network, University of Cambridge.

Sánchez-Rivera, Rachell. 2020. “Shilling for US Empire: The Legacies of Scientific Racism in Puerto Rico.” The Abuseable Past, Radical History Review.