Birth control on the border: Race, gender, religion, and class in the making of the birth control movement, El Paso, Texas. 1936-1973

Lina-Maria Murillo, University of Texas at El Paso


This study examines the history of the birth control movement on the U.S-Mexico border from 1936 until 1973. Historians have focused on various aspects of the history of reproductive control and rights nationally, but none have analyzed the borderlands region in this regard. In order to address this absence in the historical literature, this study seeks to highlight the role of organizations, activists, and patients, specifically within the ethnic Mexican community as they defined reproductive control and rights along the Texas border. El Paso, Texas served as a major port of entry for Mexicans and other groups at the turn of the twentieth century and was, therefore, viewed as a strategic site for population control. Ethnic Mexicans served as the labor force during the region’s rapid industrialization at the turn of the twentieth century. Coupled with El Paso’s proximity to Mexico, wealthy El Paso families perceived Mexicans’ growing numbers both as a racial threat and economic necessity. In 1937, with help from the birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, a group of influential white women garnered enough community support to open the Mothers’ Health Center, the first birth control clinic on the border. Sanger’s eugenic calls for population control through socially engineered families echoed the sentiments of many prominent El Paso community members. Their efforts were met with steep opposition from the Catholic Church, who charged birth control activists with inciting racial tensions in the city. Nearly a decade later, the clinic joined the Texas Birth Control League and became an affiliate of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. From its very inception, the organization in the borderlands touted population control as their major concern, particularly within the ethnic Mexican community in the region. In spite of clashes between the Church and birth control activists, thousands of women, overwhelmingly Catholic and Mexican, visited the clinic for reproductive care, including contraception, well into the 1970s. However, the history of the first border clinic affords entry into a multiplicity of birth control histories in the borderlands. While women obtained contraception at local Planned Parenthood clinics, others traversed the border zone in order to access a different form of birth control. The profitable El Paso-Ciudad Juárez abortion corridor allowed American women in the 1960s and 1970s to procure this illicit procedure just across the national boundary. With help from a feminist abortion referral service in San Francisco, California thousands of women traveled to Mexico’s northern cities in search of abortion providers before Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure in the United States. At the same time as abortion activists sought to flout restrictions to abortion access in the U.S. and Mexico, Chicana/os in South El Paso were beginning to mobilize. Although Planned Parenthood of El Paso promised birth control would help ameliorate poverty in the predominately ethnic Mexican neighborhoods, community members pointed to structural racism as the main culprit of their social and economic marginalization. By 1969 a group of community residents and Chicano/a professionals opened the Father Rahm clinic (later called Clinica La Fe), which boasted an all Chicana staff during its first years. By focusing on reproductive health as a cornerstone of their services, Chicanas actively questioned the role of white feminists and the patriarchal Catholic Church as they redefined the importance of reproductive justice within their community as the century came to a close. Although early manifestations of the birth control movement in El Paso were emboldened by overpopulation rhetoric, by the 1960s and 1970s, radical feminists and Chicanas were contesting Planned Parenthood’s aims in the borderlands focusing instead on reproductive rights and justice. Ultimately, this study contends that the history of the reproductive control and rights in the borderlands challenges national narratives about the movement and highlights the significance of ethnic Mexican women in the struggle for reproductive justice.

Subject Area

American history|Womens studies|Ethnic studies

Recommended Citation

Murillo, Lina-Maria, "Birth control on the border: Race, gender, religion, and class in the making of the birth control movement, El Paso, Texas. 1936-1973" (2016). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI10247744.