No Más Bebés

Directed by Renee Tajima-Peña

Moon Canyon Films

Review by Rachel Gross

“Mijita, you better sign those papers or your baby could probably die here,” Consuelo Hermosillo remembers hearing a nurse tell her during a difficult childbirth at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. The “papers” referred to a consent form for a tubal ligation. As the 2015 documentary No Más Bebés attests, Hermosillo and her contemporaries had not understood that signing this form would mean no más bebés por vida (no more babies for life). The film tells the story of the 1978 Madrigal v. Quilligan class action lawsuit that a group of ten workin-class Spanish-speaking women, Chicana/o lawyers and activists, and a whistleblowing doctor brought against the L.A. county hospital for forced sterilizations between 1971 and 1974. Using news footage from the 1970s and modern interviews with doctors, patients, family members, and expert witnesses, director and co-producer Renee Tajima-Peña frames the lawsuit to prevent further forced sterilizations of immigrant women as a part of a longer history of the fight for reproductive justice in the United States.

1970s Los Angeles, with its layer of smog and streets full of bell-bottoms and flowery shirts, serves as backdrop for the story Tajima-Peña tells. A young resident at the L.A. County-USC Medical Center named Bernard Rosenfeld, shocked by case notes of patients unknowingly submitting to sterilization, brought the practice to the attention of a lawyer at the Center of Law and Justice. Rosenfeld showed Antonia Hernández, a new graduate of UCLA’s law school who worked at the Center, the lists of hundreds of women at the hospital who had been sterilized without their consent: Melvina Hernandez, sterilized at age twenty-three; Maria Figueroa, sterilized at age twenty-four, Dolores Madrigral (who would go on to be the named plaintiff in the legal case), sterilized at age thirty-nine, to name only a few. They were mostly young, Spanish-speaking, and poor.

Antonia Hernández visited the modest homes of these women in East L.A. She asked them first if they knew they had been sterilized and, second, if they were willing to join a lawsuit against the doctors at the hospital to fight for informed consent. Many did not realize they had been sterilized in the minutes or hours after delivering children through caesarian section. Others, out of shame or fear of being ostracized, hid the fact from their husbands or extended family. Most had planned to have more children. As the film makes clear, the scale of the injustice reached beyond hundreds of medical files of Latinas from the L.A. County-USC Medical Center: thousands of poor women across the country—perhaps one-third of them in California—were sterilized without their knowledge or consent after giving birth.

One strength of No Más Bebés is how the filmmakers build a broad picture of American society in the 1970s, including attitudes about population growth, immigrants, and poverty. KNBC TV news reports of hospital nurseries overflowing with nonwhite babies provides a reminder of the pervasive fear of overpopulation that was often directed at immigrant women. The film unpacks Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) by exploring the attitudes of doctors working at the county hospital: even as the white male doctors congratulated themselves on serving indigent women, they expressed to colleagues their belief that poor people were having too many babies. As one doctor said after providing care to Latinos, “One thing I picked up this year was a whole new prejudice. I didn’t have anything against Mexicans when I came here.” “Yeah,” added another doctor, “all they do is screw and drink and drive.”

The film explores the precarious economic and social position of Latinos in Los Angeles in the 1970s. No matter their legal status, level of employment, or use of public assistance, white medical professionals often viewed Mexican immigrants as unassimilable noncitizens. The language barrier is also crucial here—a signature on the page consenting to surgery, the film contends, means little if the patient did not understand what she was signing. No Más Bebés shows how due to the lack of informed consent, “tube tying” became a euphemism for violence against women’s bodies. Together, these factors show how the medical establishment has been part of a broader agenda of control over the bodies of women of color—for economic as well as racist reasons.

The moral ambiguity of the film will be both troubling and provocative for students in class discussion. Students may recognize that doctors were resolute, even decades later, that they had done right by their patients morally. “It is perfectly appropriate,” the nationally renowned obstetrician Edward James Quilligan named as a defendant in the court case explained, to ask a woman in labor to discuss tubal ligation if she has a large number of kids. Despite this paternalist attitude from Quilligan, the film does not uncover a sensational conspiracy to specifically target Latina women as a part of a larger population control strategy. Instead, the film suggests, the forced sterilizations were the result of a complicated assemblage of prejudices about Mexican women and poverty, federal funding, and the lack of accountability within the medical and legal systems.

The documentary (available in both seventy-nine minute and fifty-three minute versions) will be accessible to undergraduate students, but instructors will quickly recognize a deep engagement with the historical literature, including questioning the relationship between Chicana and white feminists’ attitudes toward reproductive rights and the role of the state in promoting racially-inflected family planning. Co-producer Virginia Espino, a scholar who collected the oral histories and other research on coercive sterilization, builds on the work of other historians, including Elena Gutiérrez, Alexandra Minna Stern, Miroslava Chavez-Garcia, Rebecca Kluchin, and Mark Largent. The film is also in conversation with Ana María García’s 1982 documentary, La operación, about the sterilization of Puerto Rican women in the 1950s and 1960s. The documentary will be useful to a wide range of classes, including Chicana and Latina history, Women and Gender History, and histories of health, bodies, and reproduction. The film also asks viewers to consider a key question of social movements histories: how do women without power challenge the status quo?

Civil rights lawyer Antonia Hernández and the ten plaintiffs lost Madrigal v. Quilligan, but the documentary contends that the case and the women involved nonetheless changed society’s thinking and brought regulatory changes. The end of the film touches on just a few of the impacts, including consent forms that patients can understand and the right to access bilingual counselors. The tone is not overly celebratory, however. The filmmakers make it clear that for the women in the case who experienced the injustice of coerced sterilization, there was no remedy. The viewers join Consuelo Hermosillo, sterilized without her consent at age twenty-three, as she listens to an interview she did during the court case. In 1978 she said, “siempre sueño que estoy teniendo un niño”— I always dream I’m having a baby. Almost forty years later, Hermosillo says the way she felt when she was young has not changed. “It’s like when you bury somebody,” she explains, “you’re always going to carry them with you.”

The documentary’s questions remain all too relevant in the twenty-first century. In 2013 California was yet again at center of reports about medically unnecessary sterilization, this time with regards to hundreds of women in state prisons who were forcibly sterilized in the late 1990s and 2000s. No Más Bebés gives students the tools to ask the right questions about these cases as they continue to appear in popular media. What degree of control do women have over their own bodies, and what broader systems of social inequities does that power reflect?