Dark med­i­cal his­tory re­vealed

‘No Más Be­bés’ re­vives a 1975 forced-ster­il­iza­tion case in Los An­ge­les.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Tre’vell An­der­son

Wait­ing for an emer­gency ce­sarean sec­tion, Con­suelo Her­mosillo sat in pain on a gur­ney in the hall­way of Los An­ge­les County-USC Med­i­cal Cen­ter. At 23, Her­mosillo was hav­ing her third child with her hus­band. But be­fore she could be seen by the doc­tor, she was asked to sign pa­pers con­sent­ing to ster­il­iza­tion.

“You bet­ter sign those pa­pers or your baby is go­ing to die,” a woman told her in Span­ish, re­called Her­mosillo, a na­tive of Ver­acruz, Mex­ico. “As soon as you sign, they’ll take you in.”

Her­mosillo didn’t want to sign. She was too young and wanted to speak with her hus­band first. Leav­ing the hos­pi­tal, how­ever, she car­ried the last child she would ever be able to con­ceive.

“I don’t re­mem­ber sign­ing the con­sent form,” said Her­mosillo, now 66. “They de­cided for me.”

In 1975, she was one of about 10 women who filed Madri­gal vs. Quil­li­gan, a class-ac­tion law­suit against L.A. County doc­tors, the state and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment for ster­il­iz­ing them with­out con­sent. They hoped that the case would pre­vent the same from hap­pen­ing to other women. They lost in court, but 40 years later, in the doc­u­men­tary “No Más Be­bés” (“No More Ba­bies”) pre­mier­ing Sun­day at the Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val, the women re­visit their land­mark legal battle.

Through­out the 1900s, thou­sands of poor women in at least 30 states un­know- in­gly were ster­il­ized af­ter giv­ing birth as part of a fed­er­ally funded pro­gram aimed at pop­u­la­tion con­trol. In Cal­i­for­nia, which ac­counted for a third of the ster­il­iza­tions, many of th­ese women were Span­ish­s­peak­ing im­mi­grants. Be­fore they could en­ter the de­liv­ery room they were forced to sign pa­pers, writ­ten in English, con­sent­ing to the cut­ting of their fal­lop­ian tubes. Most did not know they were un­able to bear chil­dren un­til many years later.

When direc­tor Re­nee Ta­jima-Peña first heard the story, she was ap­palled. Aware of the ster­il­iza­tion of women in Puerto Rico, as chron­i­cled in the 1982 doc­u­men­tary “La Op­eración,” she never thought that it would have hap­pened in this coun­try, let alone so close to her child­hood home in Los An­ge­les.

Ta­jima-Peña said she makes films when some­thing makes her mad. And this made her re­ally mad.

“I thought that th­ese moth­ers had a right to be heard,” she said.

The direc­tor learned of Madri­gal vs. Quil­li­gan, one of the first cases in which women used the Roe vs. Wade prece­dent to sup­port their right to bear chil­dren, from her neigh­bor Vir­ginia Espino, and an el­e­men­tary school teacher turned histo- rian whose dis­ser­ta­tion at Ari­zona State Uni­ver­sity cen­tered on the “out­ra­geous and ab­surd vic­tim­iza­tion of th­ese and count­less other women.”

“No Más Be­bés” is the re­al­iza­tion of her goal as a his­to­rian to “bring tra­di­tional aca­demic his­tory to wider, more public au­di­ences,” she said.

But putting the doc­u­men­tary to­gether — a sixyear process — wasn’t easy. Not only was the pair us­ing old court doc­u­ments to at­tempt to find the women, but many of the moth­ers pre­ferred to for­get what had hap­pened to them.

“We were bring­ing up this his­tory that they had not shared even with their own chil­dren,” Espino said. “It took sev­eral years build­ing trust and con­vinc­ing them that what we were do­ing was an im­por­tant part of that same strug­gle they had started with their law­suit.”

The doc­u­men­tary fea­tures in­ter­views with five of the orig­i­nal com­plainants; their lawyer, An­to­nia Her­nan­dez; and Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld, who, as a med­i­cal stu­dent in res­i­dence at County-USC, shared the con­fi­den­tial hos­pi­tal records with Her­nan­dez. Four of the de­fen­dant doc­tors also are in­ter­viewed.

Espino and Ta­jima-Peña hope the film en­cour­ages peo­ple to eval­u­ate re­pro­duc­tive rights through a new lens.

“All the gains we’ve made since the 1970s, we seem to be los­ing,” Ta­jima-Peña said. “What’s in­ter­est­ing about th­ese women is they were talk­ing about the right to bear a child in a way no­body was think­ing about in the last 40 years.”

As re­pro­duc­tive rights poli­cies once again be­come hot top­ics of de­bate, she of­fers a re­minder that “on the other end of all pol­icy is a per­son.”

Her­mosillo was once one of those peo­ple, on the end of a pol­icy that she said took away her con­trol of her body. Although public pres­sure from her case prompted the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to make con­sent forms in Span­ish and English and pro­pelled the state to man­date bilin­gual coun­selors at county hos­pi­tals, since she walked out of the court­house in 1978 on the los­ing end, Her­mosillo had kept to her­self the se­cret of her ster­il­iza­tion.

When she brings her fam­ily to the pre­miere, she will keep in mind the words of her son af­ter he learned her story in a Chi­cano stud­ies class at Santa Bar­bara Col­lege: “Don’t let go of some­thing that you should have the world know what hap­pened.”

Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val

A SCENE from “Be­bés,” which tells of the forced ster­il­iza­tion of women at County-USC decades ago.

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