Through her efforts to support abortion rights, abolish enforced sterilization, and provide neonatal care to underserved people, Helen Rodriguez-Trias expanded the range of public health services for women and children in minority and low-income populations in the United States, Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Born in New York in 1929, Helen Rodriguez spent her early years in Puerto Rico, returning with her family to New York when she was 10. Growing up as a Puerto Rican in New York City, she had experienced racism and discrimination first-hand. Rodriguez-Trias graduated from the University of Puerto Rico in 1957 where she became a student activist on issues such as freedom of speech and Puerto Rican independence. Later she re-enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico to study medicine, a field that "combined the things I loved the most, science and people."
She obtained her medical degree with highest honors in 1960, and gave birth to her fourth child. During her residency, she established the first center for the care of newborn babies in Puerto Rico. Under her direction, the hospital's death rate for newborns decreased 50 percent within three years.
When she returned to New York in 1970, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias decided to work in community medicine. At Lincoln Hospital, which serves a largely Puerto Rican section of the South Bronx, she headed the department of pediatrics. Her patients, among the lowest-income populations in the United States at that time, were struggling for greater political power and better health care. At Lincoln Hospital, Rodriguez-Trias lobbied to give all workers a voice in administrative and patient-care issues. She also tried to raise awareness of cultural issues in the Puerto Rican community amongst health care workers at the hospital. At that time, she was also an associate professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University, and later taught at Columbia and Fordam universities.
Throughout the 1970s, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias was an active member of the women's health movement. She was inspired by "the experiences of my own mother, my aunts and sisters, who faced so many restraints in their struggle to flower and reach their own potential." After attending a conference on abortion at Barnard College in 1970, she focused on reproductive rights.
Rodriguez-Trias joined the effort to stop sterilization abuse. Poor women, women of color, and women with physical disabilities were far more likely to be sterilized than white, middle-class women. In Puerto Rico, for example, between 1938 and 1968, a third of the women of child-bearing age were sterilized without being fully informed of its consequences.
Rodriguez-Trias was a founding member of both the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse and the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, and testified before the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for passage of federal sterilization guidelines in 1979. The guidelines, which she helped draft, require a woman's written consent to sterilization, offered in a language they can understand, and set a waiting period between the consent and the sterilization procedure.
In the 1980s, Rodriguez-Trias served as medical director of the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute, where she worked on behalf of women with HIV. In the 1990s, she focused on reproductive health as co-director of the Pacific Institute for Women's Health, a nonprofit research and advocacy group dedicated to improving women's well-being worldwide. Rodriguez-Trias was a founding member of both the Women's Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus of the American Public Health Association and the first Latina to serve as president. She lobbied for health and reproductive issues in International Women's Conferences in Cairo and Beijing. Toward the end of her life she said, "I hope I'll see in my lifetime a growing realization that we are one world. And that no one is going to have quality of life unless we support everyone's quality of life...Not on a basis of do-goodism, but because of a real commitment...it's our collective and personal health that's at stake."
In January 2001 she received a Presidential Citizen's Medal for her work on behalf of women, children, people with HIV and AIDS, and the poor. Helen Rodriguez-Trias died of complications from cancer in December, 2001.