A new documentary airing soon on PBS covers a grisly era of California history—the forced sterilization of untold numbers of poor, mostly Latino, Spanish-speaking women in the 1960s and 70s in Los Angeles.
“No Más Bebés” tells the story of how 10 women sued doctors at the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center over tubal ligation procedures conducted on them without their knowledge. The lawsuit was led by a courageous attorney and prompted by the revelations of a whistleblowing doctor.
At a time when immigrant bashing has become a Republican sport and deportation a Democratic practice, this history is hugely relevant. Latino immigrants were seen as so undesirable that a seemingly concerted effort to curb their population was in effect for years.
“The Population Bomb,” the 1968 best-selling book by Paul Ehrlich, set the tone for a public fear of enthusiastic procreation. Writing that "Population control, of course, is the only solution to population growth," Ehrlich was taken so seriously by authorities that President Nixon in 1970 signed the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act, which funneled tax dollars to institutions and hospitals like the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center.
The U.S. has a terrible history—as do many other nations—of forced or secret sterilizations of poor women. Women of color in particular, such as African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Native Americans, were targeted. California was ground zero for the sterilization of Latinos; according to “No Más Bebés,” one-third of all sterilizations nationwide were conducted in the Golden State. As recently as 2010, the state sterilized female prison inmates, until Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill banning the practice after pressure from activist groups.
Renee Tajima-Peña, who directed “No Más Bebés,” spent years tracking down the original plaintiffs in the historic class-action lawsuit, Madrigal v. Quilligan. Six of the 10 women agreed to be interviewed. The stories of their family lives, relationships with their husbands and children, and their crushed hopes for more children are the most haunting aspect of the film. One woman and her husband planned to have a second child four years after her first was born. When she was unable to get pregnant, she was shocked to find out from a doctor that she had been sterilized. Invisible scars from the loss of babies they would never have marked their lined faces. Another woman's husband, convinced that she had deliberately asked to be sterilized in order to enjoy being sexually active, became an alcoholic. She contemplated suicide over it.
Several of the women involved in the lawsuit only found out about their condition when they were contacted by an intrepid 26-year-old lawyer, Antonia Hernandez. Hernandez was armed only with hospital records given to her by Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld, a young resident at the County Medical Center. She scoured the streets of East L.A., trying to track down the women and tell them what had been done to them in the hopes of convincing them to sue. Archival footage of Hernandez in the documentary reveals a brave and idealistic young woman so moved by the injustices she saw that she was willing to take on the entire medical establishment.
Rosenfeld is the other hero in a film that bursts at the seams with the courage of ordinary citizens. After discovering that doctors and medical staff were conducting tubal ligations of Spanish-speaking women with seemingly little or no consent, he secretly began gathering evidence. Each night after work, Rosenfeld wrote to journalists and lawyers, begging them to expose the hospital's crimes. Eventually, Hernandez and her colleagues took on the case and made history. Rosenfeld, ostracized by the hospital staff for blowing the whistle on the ugly practice, was forced out of the hospital. He later resumed his promising medical career in Texas, where he remains to this day.
The conditions under which women were sterilized were abhorrent. Most were offered tubal ligations while they were in labor by doctors who often didn't speak Spanish. The women were not given adequate explanations of what was being done to them. Some assumed that if tubes could be "tied," they could also be "untied." Others assumed the procedure was some sort of cleansing, as the word "sterilized" implied. Many were simply asked to sign papers they didn’t understand—some while in the throes of labor and in desperate need of C-sections.
The class-action lawsuit named E.J. Quilligan, the head of the hospital and a prominent doctor whose reputation remains sterling today. But in her interview with him, Tajima-Peña found a man who appeared ignorant of what was done on his watch. At best, one can only presume that doctors treating poor, brown-skinned women speaking a different language assumed they were doing the women and society a service by curtailing their reproductive abilities. At worst, a tacit practice of eugenics was being carried out by hospital staff.
The 1970s were a crucial time for political activism, and second-wave feminism in particular. Unaware of the struggles Latinas faced in their cultural attitudes toward children and family, white feminists dismissed concerns over involuntary sterilization. While Latino feminists demanded a waiting period between birth and sterilization in order to enable informed consent, white feminists pushed for "sterilization on demand." In other words, brown women were being denied the right to have children while white women felt they were being denied the right not to have children.
In the end, to the shock of the plaintiffs and their attorney, the lawsuit was dismissed. The judge ruled that "the cultural background of these particular women has contributed to the problem"—essentially blaming the women for what was done to them.
As the Supreme Court hears a legal challenge this week to Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), President Obama's executive order on immigration policy, our historical treatment of immigrant women is one that we should not forget. As hateful rhetoric spews from the right, and women and children are locked up en masse in private detention centers or deported back to violent lands, we need to remember that we too, once upon a time, wrought violence upon the bodies of immigrants.
“No Más Bebés” premieres at 10 p.m. EST Feb. 1 on “Independent Lens” on PBS (check local listings).