‘No Mas Bebes’, The Must-See Docu About The Forced Sterilization Of Latina Women In California

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There is an important battle for women’s reproductive justice happening right now across America. The forced closure of safe and regular abortion clinics, lack of access to vital family planning services such as contraception and birth control, and political and ideological pressure from those in government leadership are forcing women to fight again and again for what was already fought for back in 1973 when Roe v Wade legalized abortion in all 50 states.

On the other side of the issue is a topic that doesn’t necessarily get as much attention, but is equally important. Forced sterilization. A new documentary called ‘No Mas Bebes’ from Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Renee Tajima-Pena, examines a very important case in the history of forced sterilization in California.

In the 1970s, around the time of Roe v Wade and the third wave of feminism making headlines across the country, an LA County hospital was performing forced sterilization on a group of Latina women as part of a controversial federally funded population-control program. It targeted Mexican women who came to the hospital to give birth, and as many of them were not able to read or write English, they unknowingly signed consent forms for doctors to do a bilateral tubal ligation. In some cases the doctors were able to achieve this by bribing the women with pain medication or other similar tactics in order for the women to sign their names on the form.

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While this was happening, a small handful of the medical students who were observing the procedures were outraged this was happening, and one of them, Dr. Rosenfeld – the doctor turned whistle blower who appears in the film, sought out human rights lawyer Antonia Hernandéz who was fresh out of law school. She decided to take on the case and took the LA County hospital and its main sterilization program doctor to court on behalf of 20 Latina plaintiffs who had all been sterilized without their consent.

The case, Madrigal v. Quilligan, started getting a lot of attention in the media, who covered the trial. Around the same period, the Chicana Civil Rights movement was growing, and this case as well as the voices of the movement suddenly brought the issue of reproductive justice in the Latino community to a greater level of visibility in society.

Spoiler Alert! In 1975 the judge sadly ruled against the plaintiffs, and the “Madrigal 10” women went home without any form of compensation. It is heartbreaking to see some of the women go back to the very hospital, which is now closed down, and still be moved to tears at the thought of an important personal decision being ripped away by a callous law.

In an interview with Colorlines, filmmaker Renee Tajima-Pena says her co-producer Virginia Espino was the woman who first told her about the case and it made her want to make a documentary about it given the important conversations being had about reproductive rights today.

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“I grew up middle class and I assumed I would have a right to an abortion and that was the whole linchpin of reproductive rights, but I never considered the possibility of being denied the right to have a child. …It was a real shock to me that [these sterilizations] had happened. And I knew about the whole eugenics period, but we were talking about the 1960s and 1970s, not the distant past,” she said.

The film was originally released in 2015 (but recently shown on PBS) which coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Madrigal 10 case. Renee said her documentary offers a distinctly different but equally important perspective on the complex issue of a woman’s right to choose, and how it affected minority women differently.

“The most important point of the film is the idea of the framework of reproductive justice, that a woman has a right to not have children if she chooses, or to have a child and raise that child in dignity. This is a far cry from the way I understood the whole question of reproductive rights. There was this generation of largely women of color like Helen Rodriguez-Trias in New York, [who] were really talking about reproductive justice many, many years ago. Of course they were pretty much ignored, even by mainstream feminists. Even today, the needs and the voices of poor women, immigrant women and women of color is sometimes neglected,” she said.

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While the Madrigal 10 sadly never got to live the rest of their lives making their own reproductive choices, some positives did come out of the trial: forms in multiple languages would be made available for the patient to understand the procedures and accept or decline; patients under 21 years of age would have 72 hours to think about this choice; welfare benefits would not be terminated; Hispanic women were now more informed of their rights with regard to sterilization; and the MALDEF CRP was established in 1974. This was a group that advocated for women’s rights and informed Hispanic women to be aware of what was going on with their doctors and to report any kind of abuse.

The ugly and controversial sterilization program stemmed from an idea called “eugenics” (meaning “well-born”) which purported that certain traits such as intelligence and social behaviors are hereditary. Advocates believed that the same selective breeding theories applied to corn and cattle could also govern the intellectual and social characteristics of humanity. Because of this, legislators and government officials were eager to try it out on minority populations as they believed they were a “strain” on society and welfare services.

It is a reprehensible view of humanity, but today when you look at the way anti-abortion extremists and legislators are doing the same thing but on the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s hard to think of society as “evolved” on this issue.

“For me, the larger issue is the idea that some women have children that are more desirable in our society, and others have children that are disposable. Forced sterilization or coercive sterilization practices are a symptom of this larger belief, not the cause,” said producer Virginia to Slate.com.

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California certainly has a shameful history of forced sterilization which was happening as recently as 2013. In 1909 they became the 3rd state to pass a forced sterilization law and in 1913 furthered the legal capacities to include those with mental disabilities. The LA Times reports that between 1909 and 1979, the year the law was repealed, nearly 20,000 people were sterilized (it included men).

Here’s something even more hideous about this practice in the United States, by 1924 there were 15 states which enacted forced sterilization laws and in 1925 Adolf Hitler himself praised the US for such an ideology as eugenics. If that wasn’t enough to scare the US from stopping the practice altogether, we don’t know what would be. Sadly, in 2014 a report was released by the California State Auditor which stated between 2005 and 2013, 144 female prison inmates were sterilized, and 39 had the procedure done without consent. It caused shockwaves in the newsmedia and throughout the state, forcing Governor Jerry Brown to finally sign SB 1135 in 2014 banning forced sterilizations in state prisons.

This is shocking yet important information. Forced sterilization has changed the lives of many men and women in a way that has ripped away their ability to make autonomous, consensual and healthy decisions for themselves. The effects of forced sterilization and extreme anti-abortion measures has only proved one thing: when the government or special interest lobby groups get involved in reproductive healthcare, it is only going to end in disaster.

We encourage you to watch ‘No Mas Bebes’ on PBS for those who are in the US and get a different glimpse into why we and many others feel compelled to stand for reproductive justice for ALL women.


 

 

One Comment

  1. Pingback: An Evil Stain in California History: 20,000 Forced Human Sterilizations into 1970s – California History

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