Forced sterilization. Racial discrimination. Coercion. Deception. Abuse. Violence. Bullying. Disdain. Gaslighting. Eugenics. These are just some of the words describing the experiences of women of color, particularly Spanish-speaking women, at the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center. Women seeking medical treatment were coerced into caesarean sections, sterilized and released. Medical forms were not translated, and procedures and options were not explained. There was neither information nor consent.
In 1975, ten Mexican American women who had been sterilized against their will organized the federal class-action lawsuit with the support of lawyer Antonia Hernández and Bernard L. Rosenfeld, a young resident at the hospital who decided to copy the medical records and report what was happening, in the case known as Madrigal v. Quilligan. Dr. E. James Quilligan was the lead county obstetrician at the time. The plaintiffs included Dolores Madrigal, Consuelo Hermosillo, Melvina Hernandez, Maria Figueroa, Jovita Rivera, Helena Orozco, Maria Hurtado, Guadalupe Acosta, Estella Benavides, and Georgia Hernández.
A PBS Independent Lens production, "No Más Bebés, tells the story of a little-known but landmark event in reproductive justice, when a small group of Mexican immigrant women sued county doctors, the state, and the U.S. government after they were sterilized while giving birth at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Marginalized and fearful, many of these mothers spoke no English, and charged that they had been coerced by doctors into tubal ligation—having their tubes tied—during the late stages of labor. Often the procedure was performed after asking the mothers under duress."
The Library of Congress webpage explains that Antonia Hernandez worked with Charles Navarette at the "Model Cities Center for Law and Justice. These activist lawyers "collaborated with Comisión Feminil, a feminist organization led by Gloria Molina, and argued their case on the basis of Roe v. Wade, claiming that women possessed the reproductive rights to procreate and to an abortion."
First released in 2016, and produced by historian Virginia Espino and Academy-Award-nominated filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña, "The film not only brings to light an embarrassing era for the United States but it also raises questions that are fitting for today, such as immigration policies and their effects on families, women's rights at the hands of politicians, access to health care and reproductive care, and the practice of sterilization without patient consent. The definition of reproductive justice is further examined and clarified in the film as the concept continues to evolve."
This New York Times review explains, "Ms. Tajima-Peña and her subjects wrestle with the question of how and why it happened. Dr. Rosenfeld makes the obvious, and irrefutable, comparison to Nazi eugenics. No overarching conspiracy comes into sight, though—just a confluence of panic about overpopulation, a gusher of federal funds for population-control studies, and age-old prejudices about ethnicity, class, and poverty."
Espino explains how it felt to become aware of these events: "I was appalled that it happened. It was something that was so shocking," said Espino. "And then I became angry that it was something I'd never learned about." For an interview with the director, Renee Tajima-Peña, click here. In 1976, Antonia Hernández wrote, "Chicanas and the Issue of Involuntary Sterilizations: Reforms Needed to Protect Informed Consent."
Questions of informed consent, coercion, and intent were at the heart of the lawsuit. As reported in the New York Times, "When the suit came to trial in 1978, Judge Jesse W. Curtis ruled that 'This case is essentially the result of a breakdown in communications between the patients and the doctors.' 'Misunderstandings' occurred because the women were, primarily, Spanish-speakers…Their emotional distress at being sterilized, Curtis wrote, was caused by their 'cultural background' as immigrants from rural Mexico who believed that a woman's worth is tied to her ability to raise a large family—not by their sterilizations. Dr. E.J. Quilligan… told a reporter, 'We were practicing good medicine.'"
The class action lawsuit was lost. In 2018, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors offered a formal apology. But there has been no talk of restoration, reparations, or justice for that matter.
This is a devastating and sad film, revealing how doctors and health institutions treated people deemed less worthy. These decisions impacted thousands of women's lives, and the lives of their families and communities. This is also a film about brave people, and the community organizations and activists that supported them, taking on the Medical Industrial Complex in its early years of formation.
For a history of race science, public policy, culture and social norms, see Alexandra Stern's, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America from University of California Press. For a bibliography on the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women, click here. For history of Puerto Rican Women's struggle for reproductive rights, click here. See Jane Lawrence's, "The Little Known History of the Forced Sterilization of Native American Women here. For a thorough discussion of the forced sterilization of Black women, see Shatema Threadcraft, Intimate Justice: The Black Female Body and Body Politic.
As The Smithsonian Magazine reports, "The legacy of these infringements on reproductive rights is still visible today. Recent incidents in Tennessee, California, and Oklahoma echo this past. In each case, people in contact with the criminal justice system—often people of color—were sterilized under coercive pressure from the state."