Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias

Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias wanted to study medicine because it combined the things she loved the most—science and people. She graduated from the University of Puerto Rico in 1959 and moved to New York, where she married and had three children. After seven years, she returned to the University of Puerto Rico to study medicine. She saw it as a direct way to contribute to society—by helping individuals instead of working through groups or organizations. She received an M.D. with the highest honors in 1960. During her residency, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias established the first center in Puerto Rico for the care of newborn babies. Under her direction, the hospital’s death rate for newborns decreased 50 percent within three years. In 1970, she returned to New York City to serve the Puerto Rican community in the South Bronx. Working at Lincoln Hospital, she led community campaigns against lead paint, unprotected windows and other health hazards. She also taught at City College, raising students’ awareness of the real conditions in the neighborhoods they served. Dr. Rodriguez-Trias saw the critical links between public health and social and political rights, and expanded her work to a broader international community. She said, “I think my sense of what was happening to people’s health... was that it was really determined by what was happening in society— by the degree of poverty and inequality you had.” Working as an advocate for women’s reproductive rights, she campaigned for change at a policy level. She worked especially for low-income populations in the United States, Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She fought for reproductive rights, worked with women with HIV, and joined the effort to stop sterilization abuse. Government-sponsored sterilization programs led to hundreds of unwanted sterilizations. (Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias) “Sterilization has been pushed really internationally as a way of population control. And there is a difference between population control and birth control. Birth control exists as an individual right. It’s something that should be built into health programming. It should be part and parcel of choices that people have. And when birth control is really carried out, people are given information, and the facility to use different kinds of modalities of birth control. While population control is really a social policy that’s instituted with the thought in mind that there’s some people who should not have children or should have very few children, if any at all. I was working in Puerto Rico in the medical school in those years, the decade of 1960 to 1970. And one of the things that seemed pretty obvious to us then was that Puerto Rico was being used as a laboratory. And it was being used as a laboratory for the development of birth control technology.” In 1979, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias testified before the Department of Health, Education and Welfare for the passage of federal sterilization guidelines, which she helped to draft. These require a woman’s consent to sterilization, offered in a language she can understand, and set a waiting period between the consent and the operation. 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 2001, President Clinton presented her with a Presidential Citizen’s Medal for her work on behalf of women, children, people with HIV and AIDS, and the poor. Later that year, Helen Rodriguez-Trias died of complications from cancer.