Can a film create a semblance of justice when the legal system failed?
That’s the question I kept asking myself while watching director Renee Tajima-Peña’s No Más Bebés, which in English means, “no more babies.” The documentary will be broadcast on PBS’s “Independent Lens” series on February 1st. Full disclosure: I appear briefly in in the film. But more about that later.
No Más Bebés focuses on Madrigal v. Quilligan, a 1970s civil-rights lawsuit in which 10 poor and working-class Mexican-American women sued one of the most powerful institutions in their city, the Los Angeles County–University of Southern California Medical Center. In their complaint, the women charged that the hospital and its doctors had sterilized them without their informed consent—and, in some instances, even without their knowledge.
Many of the plaintiffs were first approached for tubal ligations—the surgical procedure that effectively sterilizes women by tying, blocking or cutting their fallopian tubes—while in the throes of labor or suffering through the frightening uncertainties of an emergency birth. Some claimed they had been pressured at that vulnerable moment into signing consents. Others said they’d refused the tubal ligation, but were sterilized anyway. Several reported learning of the procedure when they requested contraception after giving birth and were told it would be unnecessary.
“The doctor said, ‘Don’t cry. It’s best for you not to have any more children,’” one of the plaintiffs said in a 1975 interview. “‘In Mexico, the people are very, very poor and its best that you not have more children.”’
I remember that comment well, because I was the reporter doing the interview. Yes, I covered the beginnings of the Madrigal case.
In the summer of 1975, with an assignment from The Progressive and a small grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, I went to Los Angeles. I first learned of the suit after seeing a report on coercive sterilization published by Ralph Nader’s Health Research Group. For much of that summer, I dashed around the city, meeting the women and learning their stories. I didn’t speak Spanish and I didn’t drive a car. Somehow, I managed.
At the time I remember thinking that these women were like rape victims; a physical part of their being had been stolen from them.
“My nerves and my head are in great pain,” Guadalupe Acosta told me. She’d been sterilized after giving birth to a child who died in the hospital and had no recollection of consenting to a tubal ligation. “Ever since the operation, I am very inattentive. Not forgetful, inattentive. People sometimes have to tell me things twice…. I’m not there.”