Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias: A Warrior in the Struggle for Reproductive Rights

This article originally appeared in the January/February 1996 edition of the NWHN’s print publication, “The Network News,” alongside "Sterilization Abuse: The Policies Behind the Practice."


Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, M.D. has made her mark in the world of women's health. A charter member of the Network as well as a current board member, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias has been active in the women's health movement since the 1970's. Dr. Rodriguez-Trias was instrumental in the creation of both the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (CESA) and the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA). More recently, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias was the president of the American Public Health Association (APHA).

Throughout her involvement in the women's health movement, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias' main concern has been the existence of a two-tiered health care system. This split, by class and race, was witnessed by Dr. Rodriguez-Trias during her tenure as head of Pediatrics at Lincoln Hospital, located in an embattled neighborhood of the Bronx. Her experiences in medicine and life framed her belief that the women's health movement must identify and confront the forces that create this unequal system before the structure of health care can change. Dr. Rodriguez-Trias asserts that to change power relations, we must challenge the coercive nature of medicine. In essence, the existing patriarchal setting must be dismantled.

Community organizations, according to Dr. Rodriguez-Trias, are a vital component of the women's health movement. The development of these organizations is dependent on an awareness of one's surroundings. This awareness brings women together to share experiences from different perspectives. This sharing results in strong and successful coalitions, such as CESA's success in the control of sterilization abuse. With the work of these groups, changes in the health care system will be appropriate to the needs of the people.

Helen Rodriguez-Trias

Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, M.D. was a charter member of the NWHN and served on the NWHN board of directors from 1988-1996.

Dr. Rodriguez-Trias believes that another failure of the dual-track system of health care is the lack of information available to those who need it. She maintains that unbiased information and education must be made available to all women in order for the women's health movement to be successful. Dr. Rodriguez-Trias contends that education needs to come from beyond the schools and health facilities themselves. To be effective, educational outreach needs to come from families and communities as well.

Dr. Rodriguez-Trias urges women to take control of their own situations. Effective women-controlled contraception needs to be developed. Women's groups need to speak out against abuses in the use of Depo Provera, Norplant, hysterectomy, and sterilization, and demand immediate action. The women's health movement must call for the quality of care that ALL people deserve.

There have been many successes thus far. Dr. Rodriguez-Trias notes that we have learned to successfully organize coalitions of community groups and health workers. We also know these coalitions can be effective in sharing information and in applying pressure to policy makers (New York City Council, Department of Health and Human Services, etc.).

Dr. Rodriguez-Trias suggests that the women's health movement needs to contribute to the pressure to create a unification of forces aiming for a safe workplace and a safe environment for women's rights. To achieve this, we must all come together as one to fight the class/race split that was accentuated in the 1970's and which divided the movement between elite white women and disadvantaged non-white women. Dr. Rodriguez-Trias asserts, "If we struggle through, we can find agreement and diverse groups can work together."

In her hopes for the future, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias is committed to the creation of an open forum, where each woman can speak her mind and all respect the opinions of others in a no-fault environment. This strengthening of the women's movement is a step towards a more equitable society. In preparation for the struggles that the women's health movement will face in the future, Dr. Rodriguez-Trias hopes, "May we meet the challenge with strength."

Kathryn Krase was a fall Network intern

To learn more about the NWHN’s ongoing work to fight reproductive coercion, click HERE.