'No Más Bebés': Sterilized Without Consent
As the struggle for reproductive rights continues, we might look back on history in order to understand the consequences of denying women sovereignty over their own bodies.
"Before the baby was born, the doctor called a young nurse over and she told me I needed to sign. It was in English." Melvina Hernández was in labor 40 years ago. She was just 23.
As she speaks now, in Spanish, the camera tracks toward a hospital intake desk, looming in a low angle frame. The scene cuts to another mobile shot, headed toward a door marked "Surgery". "If you don’t sign, you'll die," the nurse told her. Melvina recalls, as the camera tips up toward ceiling lights in an operating room, "Then the nurse grabbed my hand and signed my name. I didn't know I was sterilized until four years later."
It sounds like a horror movie. For Melvina and thousands of other women, however, the nightmare was real. In labor, denied pain medication until they signed forms they couldn't understand, women faced multiple consequences. As they remember it for Renee Tajima-Peña's documentary No Más Bebés, airing 1 February as part of PBS’s “Independent Lens” series after many film festival screenings, you see that effects of the trauma lingers, in part because those affected are still struggling to understand what happened and how it happened.
This sorting out involves not only women who were coerced or deceived into being sterilized, but also those doctors, former medical students, courtroom witnesses, and attorneys who worked through a legal case assembled by Antonia Hernández. At the time, in 1975, she was a recent UCLA Law School graduate, working at LA's Center for Law and Poverty. "It was just the beginning of the civil rights movement in the Latino community," she says, and some issues raised by her work came into conflict with other movements, led by white feminists (who saw their free access to such surgery seemed threatened by the demand for a waiting period) or by Latino men, who followed in the footsteps of so many other civil rights movements, imagining that their interests were more crucial than those of women.
Hernández took on these and other obstacles in defense of a desperately underrepresented population. When she learned of Melvina and other women's stories, she drove through town in her Datsun, visiting with them one on one, and recording their stories to build a case against the County-USC Medical Center. "Some of them didn't know anything," Hernández says now. "In the midst of labor, they don't remember signing. And here I am, this young lawyer, going into their homes asking, 'Do you know that you've been sterilized?'" More than once, she says, a husband would come into the room during a meeting and the wife would change the subject, trying to hide what had happened from their families.
This effort had everything to do with what the eventual case -- Madrigal v. Quilligan -- would argue, that the women were traumatized not only by having their tubes tied, but also by the resulting cultural stigma, the damage to self-identities based in part on being able to have babies. "My plan was to have four or five," remembers Consuelo Hermosillo, "My husband wanted ten, but that was too much."
The film goes on not only to give voice to victims, but also to provide a historical framework for the practice of sterilization for poor populations, as TV news broadcasts show events were covered by Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor, among other national broadcasters. The practice occurred in various states around the US and has circulated in public discourse since 1909, with Paul R. Ehrlich and David Brower's book, The Population Bomb, published in 1968 and promoted on TV (here we see Johnny Carson interviewing one of the authors), making the threat of overpopulation appear particularly scary. Some proponents made the case that poor women might undergo forced sterilization, but it appears that much of the practice -- opposed to the theorizing -- was less visible.
That the women who were sterilized were Mexican women in LA (and Appalachian white women and underclass black women in other areas) suggests the practice was selective. Some interviewees deny this. Indeed, James Quilligan, then chairman of the hospital's Obstetrics and Gynecology, repeats now what he said then, which is that he had no interactions with individual patients and provided no particular edict to his staff concerning sterilization. "We were practicing good medicine," he says. For the most part, he doesn't offer details, though he does say, "If you see a patient for the first time who's in labor who has a large number of children, one of the things you discuss with her is perfectly appropriate."
Unsurprisingly, Quilligan's version of events and intentions contradicts with one offered by former resident Bernard Rosenfeld, who at the time witnessed the practice and provided journalists and then the legal team with information. (For his efforts, he was "ostracized", and the hospital filed a complaint to take away his license, he says, "Essentially for letting these women who were sterilized know they were sterilized.") Rosenfeld, hailed as a whistleblower in one caption, appears here in various situations, jogging, digging through boxes of files, and in his younger incarnation in photos, bushy-haired and lanky. He asserts, "No private doctor in a private hospital would go up to a woman when she was in labor and ask if she wanted her tubes tied."
The women who did face this question -- under duress, without support, and in a language they didn't understand -- at last have a way to tell their harrowing stories. (Some are only now revealing to their children what happened.) As the struggle for reproductive rights continues in the 21st century, we might look back on such history in order to understand the consequences of denying women sovereignty over their own bodies.