by Tara Miller
“In east Los Angeles during the late 1960s and early 1970s, women were going to the county hospital to give birth… Some went home sterilized.”
These are the opening lines of the trailer for the 2016 film No Más Bebes, which premiered on PBS last February. The film tells “the story of immigrant mothers who sued county doctors, the state, and the U.S. government after they were pushed into sterilizations while giving birth at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the 1960s and 70s.”
The narrative centers on testimonies from many of the players in the landmark case, Madrigal v. Quilligan, that brought these coerced sterilizations to light—including interviews with five of the ten plaintiffs in the case, the defendant, Dr. Edward James Quilligan, and the whistleblowing doctor who spoke up about the forced and coerced sterilizations he witnessed at the hospital.
In one heart-wrenching interview featured in the film, Consuelo Hermosillo explains that after she gave birth, “The doctor walked in and said, ‘We cut your tubes.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Well, you signed for it.’ And I said, ‘Me? ‘I go, ‘I don’t remember nothing.’” Another woman interviewed in the film says she did not find out she was sterilized until much later in life, when trying to get pregnant with her second child.
And these are only two examples of a disturbing and pronounced trend at the LA-USC Medical Center. Dr. Bernard Rosenthal, who was a resident at the time and ended up confronting the doctors at LA-USC about these practices says in the film that the mostly Mexican women coming through the hospital “were extremely fearful, being told that [they] need[ed] emergency cesarean sections, feeling blood pouring down [their] leg[s], at that time signing consent for tubal ligation.” According to the film’s interviewees, many of these women were even told that their baby might die if they did not sign the consent to sterilization documents.
These testimonies make it abundantly clear that although many of these women did sign consent forms, they did so under conditions of extreme stress (mid-giving-birth), with incorrect information (like, their baby would die if they didn’t sign), and often without understanding what they were signing at all (due to obvious language barriers).
And, as the film’s director, Renee Tajima-Peña, says in an interview with PBS, “This is not a film simply about the past. Up until as recently as 2010, incarcerated women were being sterilized in California prisons without the proper approvals, and some without consent.”
In fact, not only is forced and coerced sterilization happening in prisons, it is even still happening in hospitals.
In October 2013, medical interpreter Luisa Paredes described a situation eerily similar to that of the Madrigal 10. While translating the post-birth nurse’s report to a patient in her hospital, Paredes also informed the patient that she had had a successful tubal ligation, completely to the patient’s surprise. Luisa’s account of the doctor’s response is troubling, to say the least: “The doctor’s tone became sober and his smile disappeared as he explained to Mrs. Gonzalez that she did get her tubes tied, that her insurance would not cover its retraction, and that even if it were to be reversed, there was no guarantee she could have a baby again. As I finished repeating his words in Spanish, the woman broke into tears. Having just delivered her second baby, she looked forward to having three more, as is accustomed in her culture. “Por qué, por qué?” she sobbed. “Why, why?” I asked the doctor. The doctor apologized and slowly drifted out of the room.”
Why aren’t these horrific stories at the forefront of the reproductive justice movement? As director Tajima-Peña recounts, “The plaintiff’s lawyers, Antonia Hernández and Charles Nabarrete, argued that a woman’s right to bear a child was constitutionally protected under Roe v. Wade. They filed in 1975, only two years after the Roe V. Wade decision. I think that’s really significant, that at a time the dominant narrative of reproductive choice and rights was being constructed around abortion, they were framing it as the right to have a child, as well as the decision to not have child. The reproductive justice groups have really worked to change that conversation in more recent years.”
“And who has a voice in those debates around reproductive rights? Forty years ago, the women of the Madrigal 10 were among the most at risk for losing their rights. They were Latinas, predominantly low income and Spanish-speaking. But even within the women’s movement, they weren’t being heard. That’s been the case with poor women, then and now.”
As Tajima-Peña comments in the interview with PBS, No Más Bebes exposes a historical case of forced sterilization that begs questions about similar practices now and beyond: “Even beyond the issue of sterilization, I think what’s important is the larger question: who controls my body?” In a world and society governed by racism, patriarchy, classism, homophobia, transphobia and more, the bodies of marginalized people are constantly under attack. As No Más Bebes highlights, one of the primary tools of oppression is assuming control over others’ bodies. As we fight for access to safe abortions, the right to love and fuck whomever we want regardless of their gender, access to healthcare for trans people, and against police brutality, the question of “who controls my body” resurfaces again and again.
No Más Bebes exposes a disturbing yet all too common example of an oppressive system’s attempt to control the bodies of marginalized people. The film is a vital addition to the conversations around social and reproductive justice, especially in communities of color. While many self-described feminist and reproductive-rights organizing and advocacy is centered around the right not to have children, it’s important to remember that the right to have children is just as valid and important.