On Monday night, the documentary No Más Bebés premiered on PBS (it’s streaming free online until mid-February). The film tells the little-known history of Mexican immigrant women who were sterilized without their informed consent while giving birth at Los Angeles County hospital in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many spoke no or limited English and were asked while in labor or in the frantic moments before emergency C-sections to sign documents agreeing to have their tubes tied, thus ensuring that this birth would be their last. (For a reflection on the film by the journalist who broke the original story in 1975, read Claudia Dreifus’s January 27 article, “A Group of Mexican Immigrant Women Were Sterilized Without Their Consent. Can a New Film Bring Justice?”)
One woman recalls a nurse grabbing her hand and forcing a scrawled signature on the page. A medical resident training at the hospital at the time recalls seeing a colleague hold a syringe filled with pain meds in front of a suffering woman’s face: “You want this shot? Sign.” The women often did not know until years later that they’d been sterilized. Many were in the dark until approached by attorneys who, armed with hospital records provided by a whistle-blower, urged the women to join a class-action suit charging that the hospital had violated their civil rights.
The film weaves together interviews with the women and their families, doctors involved in the tubal ligations, and the attorneys, advocates, and academics who contributed to the class-action suit, Madgrigal v. Quilligan, which was heard in federal court and decided in 1978. In a display of victim blaming at its finest, the judge presiding over the case zeroed in on the testimony of a UCLA anthropologist who had interviewed the women and found them to be deeply traumatized as a result of the forced sterilizations. These women had placed a high value on childbearing, and many had emigrated from rural areas where large families were the norm. But instead of eliciting empathy, this context was used against the plaintiffs. “The cultural background of these particular women has contributed to the problem,” the judge wrote in his ruling.
Despite the blow of a legal loss, the case yielded some positive results in the form of regulatory change. There would be no remedy for the affected women, but the federal government would provide consent forms in English and Spanish. The state would make bilingual counselors available at county hospitals. And now, nearly 40 years later, the film itself is proving to be another type of victory for the women, their families and those who advocated on their behalf. The film uncovers this hidden history, and provides today’s reproductive justice advocates with a tool that helps explain what their work is and why it matters.
Staffers of the organization California Latinas for Reproductive Justice have participated in half a dozen screenings across the state in the past year, including on college campuses, at the California Endowment, and at a conference for promotores, people who work in Latino communities to connect individuals with heathcare and social services. Laura Jimenez, CLRJ’s executive director, said that because these sterilizations occurred so recently, the film is quite personal for many who’ve watched. “We’re talking to people who are from the surrounding neighborhoods, or their parents or grandparents were raised in that area [served by LA County hospital]. So then they start asking themselves, ‘Could this have been my family?’” Jimenez added that in every screening in which she’s participated, someone has said that either they or someone they know has been asked while in labor if they would like a tubal ligation at the time of the birth. In the film, Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld, the whistle-blower who decades ago shared what he was seeing at LA County hospital with attorneys and activists, says no doctor at a private hospital would do such a thing.