Issue 11.3 | Summer 2013 / Guest edited by Rachel C. Lee

“Más Bebés?”: An Investigation of the Sterilization of Mexican-American Women at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the 1960s and 70s

“Jovita Rivera said a doctor told her she should have her ‘tubes tied’ because her children were a burden on the government …”
Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1975

“And this lady came, I don’t remember seeing her face, I just remember her voice telling me, ‘Mijita, you better sign those papers or your baby could probably die here.’”
—Consuelo Hermosillo, interview[1]

“… the doctor would hold a syringe in front of the mother who was in labor pain and ask her if she wanted a pain killer; while the woman was in the throes of a contraction the doctor would say, “Do you want the pain killer? Then sign the papers.”
—Dr. Karen Benker[2]

Trailer for the documentary No Más Bebés Por Vida, directed by Renee Tajima-Peña and produced by Virginia Espino and Renee Tajima-Peña, in association with the Independent Television Service and Latino Public Broadcasting.

Was the maternity ward at Los Angeles county hospital a border checkpoint for unborn babies? The documentary No Más Bebés Por Vida,[3] due to be completed this year, investigates the history of women of Mexican origin who contend that they were coercively sterilized at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center (LAC+USC) during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of these women spoke no English and have testified that they were prodded into tubal ligations during the late stages of active labor and as they awaited emergency Caesarean sections.

No Más Bebés Por Vida is the story of a group of mothers, young Chicano/a lawyers and activists, and a whistle-blowing doctor, who faced public exposure and stood up to powerful institutions in the name of justice. This essay is a glimpse both at that unfolding story and at the collaborative influences that have shaped the off-screen production. The project originated in the research of the historian Virginia Espino, who is the film’s co-producer, and it draws on the growing body of research into the history of sterilizations at LAC+USC by scholars such as Elena Gutiérrez and Alexandra Minna Stern.[4] Espino frames the sterilizations within theories of racial formation, both for the violation of the women—the brown body was policed by a racialized state even before birth—and for the emergence of Chicana feminist resistance.[5] Whereas the Mexican migrant worker historically has been predominantly male, the female represents the possibility of children, families, and future citizens (and by extension, the pollution of the gene pool)—fueling persistent anxiety over the immigrant. We may want the labor, but do we want the people—the families, the children, the lives—who come with it?

The film considers Gutiérrez’s argument that a “perfect storm” of sociopolitical factors—that is, the Zero Population Growth movement and concerns over welfare dependency and illegitimacy, bolstered by a huge influx of federal dollars to family planning—led to coercive sterilizations in Los Angeles and across the United States at the time. Elsewhere in the country, African American, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Dominican, Native American, and poor white women were also being targeted.[6] But, as Gutiérrez states, “for pregnant Mexican immigrant women in California during the 1970s, the issue of welfare and overpopulation were immutably tied to larger questions of citizenship and of who was rightfully deserving of social benefits such as medical care.”[7]

Efforts to restrict and control the Latino population have long been intertwined with eugenics and social policy. According to Stern, the first challenge to California’s longstanding sterilization law to reach the appellate level was brought by Sarah Rosas Garcia in 1939, on behalf of her 19-year-old daughter. Stern found that long before the Madrigal v. Quilligan case, a disproportionate number of patients with Spanish surnames were being sterilized at “feeble-minded” facilities and were challenging the procedures privately and in the courts.[8] While scholars of the US eugenics movement contend that eugenic sterilization faded after World War II, Espino argues that federally funded family planning programs ushered in a culture of “back door” eugenics, where sterilizations occurred in apparently legal and voluntary procedures as hospital staff obtained consent either through coercion or without the patient’s knowledge.[9]

Today, in an echo of the “population bomb” scare of the 1960s and 1970s, there is a new nativism, which has been coined as “the greening of hate” and cloaked in environmental alarm over climate change.[10] A steady drumbeat of public opinion and policy initiatives has generated proposals to limit prenatal care for undocumented women and reverse the 14th Amendment, the Constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship. The enduring cultural fear of the hyperfertility of Mexican women from the eugenics era to the current cyber century is on view in the online shooter game, “Border Patrol,” which visually references the ubiquitous border-region road signs that depict a Mexican woman crossing with her children. The gamer is a Border Patrol agent targeting Mexican figures that race across the screen, including the pregnant, female “breeder.” When there is a direct hit, blood splatters from the infant cradled in her arms.

Where, then, did responsibility lie for the sterilizations at LAC+USC? The film attempts to navigate the gulf between accountability, as it is legally defined, and justice—the muddy waters through which policy, money, gender, race, and ethics travel from the public sphere to the maternity floor and which structure an intimate moment of a woman’s life: birth.

The Film

Excerpt from the documentary No Más Bebés Por Vida, directed by Renee Tajima-Peña and produced by Virginia Espino and Renee Tajima-Peña, in association with the Independent Television Service and Latino Public Broadcasting.

The setting of No Más Bebés Por Vida is the largely Mexican-American community on the east side of Los Angeles. The massive Beaux Arts buildings that originally housed LAC+USC sit atop a hilly rise in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. Now shuttered beside a newly built facility, the old structure was known during the 1970s as the setting of the soap opera General Hospital. In 1973, the real LAC+USC was a huge public hospital serving many working-class, low income, and immigrant populations. At the complex’s Women’s Hospital, a young intern, Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld, became alarmed at practices inside the maternity ward. He believed that women of Mexican origin were being sterilized without their knowledge or consent, and set about to surreptitiously gather evidence from hospital records. After his shifts, Rosenfeld would spend hours typing out letters to journalists, civil rights groups, government offices, and national politicians. He hoped that the evidence he collected would bring legislative mandates to protect women from future abuse and would lead to legal retribution for the victims.

Finally, the case was taken on by a group of young Mexican American lawyers at the nearby storefront legal organization, the Model Cities Center for Law and Justice. Twenty-six-year-old Antonia Hernandez was just out of the UCLA School of Law when she and Charles Nabarrete, an attorney, were contacted by Dr. Rosenfeld. Hernandez had grown up on the east side of Los Angeles, and her own mother had been pressured at LAC+USC to agree to sterilization when she gave birth to her youngest daughter. The two young lawyers agreed to mount a class action lawsuit (Georgina Torres-Risk was initially co-counsel) in conjunction with the Chicana feminist organization Comisión Feminil, led at the time by a young legal secretary named Gloria Molina.[11] Ten local women agreed to sign on as plaintiffs, and the civil rights lawsuit Madrigal v. Quilligan was filed in federal court against the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare; the California State Department of Health; the individual doctors who had performed sterilizations; the chief resident Dr. Roger Freeman, and Dr. Edward J. Quilligan. A local attorney, Ricardo Cruz, filed a related private lawsuit on behalf of three women sterilized at the hospital, Andrade v. Los Angeles County.

The interviews that we filmed for the documentary reveal conflicting accounts of the sterilizations. Women have vivid memories of coercive practices by medical staff. Dolores Madrigal, a factory worker and mother of two, who would become lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, was assured that her tubes could be “untied” later. Other women such as plaintiff Jovita Rivera, who was sterilized at the age of 27, were never informed that they could no longer bear children. On the other hand, doctors at the hospital refute the charges of coercion, and insist that reproductive research and patient care thrived under the leadership of Dr. Quilligan, at the time one of the most esteemed obstetrical researchers in the world. The framework of reproductive justice—and its intersectionality with immigration, race, gender, and poverty—complicates the narrative of sterilizations at LAC+USC. The medical staff functioned in a massive public hospital, delivering over 1,000 babies per month with no clear protocol for informed consent. From newly minted young residents just out of school to marquee names in research, doctors performed and presided over the sterilizations and, at the same time, participated in groundbreaking advances for women’s reproductive health. In this golden age of family planning, federal funding made contraception accessible and affordable to women at all income levels. Poor, predominantly Mexican-origin women at LAC+USC simultaneously benefited from or were unwillingly subjected to contraceptive procedures and testing.

The recognition of the intersectionalities underlying the notion of reproductive justice was implicit to the mobilization around the case by Chicana feminists. Their resistance to sterilization abuse magnified underlying contradictions both within the male-dominated nationalist movement that rendered female autonomy secondary, and among mainstream feminists who privileged the concerns of middle-class, white women. As in Dorothy Roberts’ insistence on calculating race and African American women’s experience into any equation of reproductive liberty,[12] the anti-sterilization abuse movement was intricately tied to the emergence and definition of Chicana feminism. Activists organizing against racially based pro-sterilization views argued that women had a basic human right to bear a child. That position helped to distinguish them from white feminists whose focus on abortion rights during the same period often made them oblivious to the reproductive abuse faced by women of color throughout the United States. The California chapter of the National Organization of Women opposed the call for a waiting period for sterilizations as a threat to abortion and sterilization on demand; some radical feminists refused to participate in any action involving men.[13]

A Filmmaker’s Note on the Social Documentary Approach

First, I would like to state what may sound obvious, but that sometimes gets murky in the actual practice of artistic and scholarly collaboration: a film is not a text; artistic labor and academic labor are different—in processes, in constituencies, and often in temperaments. But there is much work to be done together. In the Social Documentation Program (SocDoc) at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the EthnoCommunications Program that I will soon join at UCLA, we teach a filmmaking practice that merges social scientific and humanities theories and analyses with documentary. This does not assume expert testimony or data graphics on screen. Rather, this is a methodology that embeds research and ideas into the DNA of the film: a bit of alchemy, a lot of trust.

No Más Bebés Por Vida came out of that documentary practice, which I have relied on ever since my first film, Who Killed Vincent Chin? As noted above, the origin story of the film began with research into the LAC+USC case by the film’s co-producer, Virginia Espino, who conducted formative primary research into the case. She and I are neighbors, and she often talked about her project during playdates when our kids were small. The story hit me in the gut. I was a new mother; the idea that my fertility, my dreams, could be crushed at this moment of profound vulnerability, was unfathomable. At the time, I was working on two films that similarly traversed the landscape of mourning and dislocation of migration and poverty. For The New Americans: Mexico Story, I filmed the story of a migrant Kansas meatpacker named Pedro Flores who only had one shot at finally bringing his family to the United States after 13 years of separation.[14] Calavera Highway followed my husband Armando Peña, who grew up a farmworker, as he retraced the migrant trail to carry his mother’s ashes back home and reunite with his far-flung brothers. The tenor of loss, poverty, and injustice, is nothing new for a documentary filmmaker. But after over 25 years of making films, I was more and more flummoxed. How to speak to the unspeakable?

As a creative work, No Más Bebés Por Vida, then, is a search for a visual language and a deeper comprehension of making legible that “presence of absence.” How can a film express the true dimensions of violation and its aftermath, whether inconsolable or transformational, given the extent to which these internal processes are not visible to the camera? How can migration and work; dislocation and war; childbirth and death; and love and loss link the private and the public? And finally, as Judith Butler asks, “who counts as human?”[15]

As I entered the rooms and hallways of the abandoned hospital with my film crew, the site conjured the traces of the almost unknowable lived experience of the women who were sterilized. It is haunted, but not by the ghouls and phantoms of the popular imagination. Avery Gordon, Rosalinda Fregoso, and others maintain that there is a politics to these kinds of metaphorical hauntings. For Gordon, the ghosts appear to us when there is unfinished business and they insist that we take notice “out of concern for justice.” These are the shadowed landscapes, the interstitial but essential stuff of the human condition that exists outside the grasp of empirical knowledge or language.[16] In making No Más Bebés Por Vida, I have drawn on the social documentary method, histories, literary texts, photography, and fiction film as a way of locating these traces, as in Alex Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer—a brilliant imagining of the other end of the nativist dream, that is, a future of Mexican labor disembodied from Mexican bodies; as in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, and its central figure of a murdered child; and as in the photography of Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson, especially The Water Bearer, a figure bearing life in a simple white shift that at the same time conjures a shroud.

While filming the women who were plaintiffs of Madrigal v. Quilligan, white garments sometimes haunted the screen: Maria Hurtado beading her granddaughter’s wedding veil; the baptism of Maria Figueroa’s grandson in the waters of the inexplicably named Mother’s Beach, the folding and unfolding of a christening dress. As Patricia Zavella pointed out to me, the imagery of figures in white evokes a re/visioning of the La Llorona myth—a woman blamed for the death of her child—but in this instance, the fault lies elsewhere, and the mothers declare the perpetrator. In the film, children are everywhere, most often seen in fleeting glimpses that summon forth the interior lives of the mothers. I see this as a transgressive appropriation of pro-life iconography. Chicana activists battled within the feminist movement to redefine choice as the right to abortion and the right to give birth.

The Madrigal v. Quilligan story culminated when ten sterilized mothers finally had their day in federal district court in 1978, leading to the surprising fate of the case. The legacy of that battle still lives on in the emergence of those Chicana leaders both at a grassroots level and in mainstream politics, and not only in the contentious issues surrounding immigrants, access to public benefits, and health care, but in the transformed political landscape for Mexican Americans to intervene in those debates. It is a legacy that is most profoundly named and inscribed on pages of court documents and memory: Guadalupe Acosta, Estella Benavides, Maria Figueroa, Rebecca Figueroa, Maria Hurtado, Consuelo Hermosillo, Georgina Hernandez, Dolores Madrigal, Helena Orozco, Jovita Rivera.

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  1. Consuelo Hermosillo, video interview, 19 Oct. 2011. [Return to text]
  2. Elena R. Gutiérrez, “Policing Pregnant Pilgrims: Situating the Sterilization Abuse of Mexican-Origin Women in Los Angeles County,” Women, Heath, and Nation: Canada and the United States since 1945, eds. Georgina Feldberg, Molly Ladd-Taylor, Alison Li, and Kathryn McPherson, (Montreal: Mcgill-Queen’s UP, 2003) and trial transcripts, Madrigal v. Quilligan. [Return to text]
  3. Directed by Renee Tajima-Peña, produced by Virginia Espino and Renee Tajima-Peña, in association with the Independent Television Service and Latino Public Broadcasting. [Return to text]
  4. Alexandra Minna Stern, “Sterilized in the Name of Public Health: Race, Immigration, and Reproductive Control in Modern California,” American Journal of Public Health 95.7 (2005): 1128-1138. See also Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, (Berkeley: U of California P, 2005); Virginia Espino, “Women Sterilized as They Give Birth: Forced Sterilization and the Chicana Resistance in the 1970s,” Las Obreras: Chicana Politics of Work and Family, eds. Vicki Ruiz and Chon Noriega, (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Resource Center Publications, 2000): 65-82. [Return to text]
  5. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s, (New York: Routledge, 1989[1986]). [Return to text]
  6. One of the most widely publicized was the case of two African American sisters, Mary and Minnie Reif, in Montgomery, Alabama. They were only ten and twelve years old when a hospital asked their mother to sign sterilization consent forms that she believed were consent forms for additional “shots.” Their mother could neither read nor write, and placed only an “X” on the form under the instructions of workers from the Montgomery Family Planning Center. [Return to text]
  7. Gutiérrez 2003. [Return to text]
  8. Alexandra Minna Stern, video interview, 8 Aug. 2011. [Return to text]
  9. Espino 2000. [Return to text]
  10. Priscilla Huang, “Anchor Babies, Over-Breeders, and the Population Bomb: The Reemergence of Natism and Population Control in Anti-Immigration Policies,” Harvard Law & Policy Review, 2.2 (2008). [Return to text]
  11. Antonia Hernandez went on to become the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and is currently the president and CEO of the California Community Foundation, Charles Nabarette is an administrative law judge, and Georgina Torres-Rizk is a superior court judge. Ironically, Gloria Molina is a long-time Los Angeles County supervisor and journalist Frank Cruz, who covered the trial, is a member of the board of trustees at USC, both in positions of power at the institutions governing the medical center. [Return to text]
  12. Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, (New York: Vintage Books, 1997). [Return to text]
  13. Espino 2000. [Return to text]
  14. Part of a seven-hour series for PBS, The New Americans, produced by Kartemquin Films. [Return to text]
  15. Judith Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 4.1 (2003) 9-37. [Return to text]
  16. Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997). [Return to text]