Carolina Hurtado in the maternity ward of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where she was sterilized in the 1970s.
Although this may not come as a surprise, the current battles over reproductive rights in the United States have a deep-rooted history. Between 1971-1974, 10 Mexican women were coerced and deliberately misinformed into sterilization by medical doctors at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center while undergoing emergency Cesarean deliveries. In No Mas Bebés (or No More Babies), an hour-long PBS documentary that debuted this week, award-winning director Renee Tajima-Peña and producer Virginia Espino retrace the haunting 1975 legal battle of Madrigral v. Quilligan to tell the victims’ stories.
Together, the filmmakers worked over the course of five years to find and interview the women who were unknowingly sterilized and examine the conditions that led to this decision. Through testimonies by the women and families affected, as well as words by Antonia Hernandez, the leading lawyer on the case, academic scholars, and the doctor who exposed the ill-practices of his colleagues, No Mas Bebés is a harrowing and humanizing examination of a case that exemplifies the effects of institutionalized racism and the policing of women’s bodies. In what Elena Gutiérrez, author and professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, describes as a “perfect storm,” a closer look at the political climate of the era reveals the dangerous melding of zero populationist movements, the federally funded renaissance of “family planning,” and concerns over suspected immigrant welfare dependency.
In the case of Madrigal v. Quilligan, the women reported having to exchange signatures for epidural shots in between contractions and had their language barriers exploited by medical professionals. Dolores Madrigal, the namesake plaintiff, explained that her doctor instructed her to sign paperwork and claimed her husband had already filled out his portion for approval, though this turned out to be untrue. Through a series of unethical power abuses exercised by the Los Angeles County Hospital, these 10 women were permanently stripped of their ability to ever give birth again. In a few cases, the women weren’t even aware that they had been sterilized until they sought medical care after finding that they were unable to conceive years later. Through tears and pained voices, the film allows the remaining women of the Madrigal v. Quilligan case to share their incredibly intimate and traumatizing experiences firsthand. In addition to the shame and mortification many faced both through self-implication and by their families, a shared narrative of identity loss also surfaced when the cultural ties between femininity and motherhood were severed.
The court ultimately ruled against Dolores Madrigal and the other nine women in the class action suit citing inconclusive evidence of intended malice. Following the verdict, the state required medical professionals to better inform patients of sterilization before undergoing the procedure yet denied an appeal of the ruling in 1979 as a direct result of the new legislation. Of the notable change: those under the age of 21 were required a 72-hour waiting period, sterilization forms offered in multiple languages became mandatory, and welfare assistance could not be revoked for refusing sterilization.
Despite these changes and the increased awareness that has come with recent coverage, justice isn’t as tangible an outcome for these women, unlike the subjects of current true-crime series like Serial and Making a Murderer. Because as Tajima-Peña explains in an interview with PBS, “Can a film help to bring a sense of justice or—and this is a word I hate to use—closure? They lost something that is so fundamental to their humanity—the ability to have a child. […] How do you make up for that kind of loss?”
Though nearly 50 years have passed since the Madrigal v. Quilligan ruling, it’s crucial to remember that this is not an isolated incident. The accounts in No Mas Bebés closely mirror the experiences of Black, Puerto Rican, and Native-American women during the period who also underwent sterilization in mass numbers without adequate justice. As a pioneer of eugenics movements in the U.S. as well, the State of California performed 80 percent of the nation’s sterilizations alone in the mid-1970s and it wasn’t until 2014 that the state implemented a legal ban on forced inmate sterilization. While the forced sterilization of women may be regarded as a dark practice of the past, nearly 150 female inmates in California were sterilized without their consent as recently as 2011.
As the fight for reproductive rights remains ever-pertinent, bodies—especially when poor and brown—continue to be controlled by politicians. In supporting women’s rights, the intersectional components of feminism mustn’t be ignored, and it’s essential that race and class reign equally important. While this film tells the stories of the 10 Mexican women who were wrongfully sterilized in the 1970s, the film also advocates for the right to be heard—whether when fighting for the right to have an abortion or the right to bear a child.
You can watch No Mas Bebes online for free from PBS until February 22.