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CHICAGO • The English language is so flexible so bedeviling, even that the word "tie" can actually mean "cut." "Sterilization" can mean "cleaning" but also the impeding of the ability to produce offspring.
The new Independent Lens documentary "No Mas Bebes" No More Babies uncovers the story of how low-income women in 30 states were duped during childbirth with such words, or just plain bullied, into agreeing to be sterilized in the late 1960s and '70s.
It does so through the stories of six women, all Hispanic, who went through the traumatizing ordeal at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center although poor white Appalachian women and low-income black women went through much the same in other cities.
Some were in life-or-death situations in which doctors told them they could not have the emergency C-sections they needed to ensure their babies would live unless they agreed to have their "tubes tied." Others were asked, during the final, most painful hours of their labor if they wanted "no mas bebes" by being sterilized but were not made to understand that this involved a severing of the fallopian tubes that could not be undone.
A few women, incredibly, didn't even know they'd been sterilized until years later, after an outspoken doctor had made evidence of the wrongdoing public and a group of just-out-of-school Mexican-American lawyers broke the news to them during the process of gathering witnesses to make a case against the USC Medical Center.
The testimony of the women and the doctors involved in the Madrigal v. Quilligan lawsuit is so compelling that, unfortunately, it didn't leave time for the filmmakers, Renee Tajima-Pena and Virginia Espino, to mention that, though the lawsuit did eventually lead to nationwide reforms to protect women from coercive sterilizations, the issue is far from over.
Forced sterilization in this country goes back to the late 1800s, but incarcerated women in California prisons recently proved that as many as 150 inmates were unwillingly sterilized between 2006 and 2010. In 2015, a Tennessee prosecutor was found to have offered probation in exchange for sterilization.
That said, the context in which the fight for these low-income Mexican women's civil rights occurred is surely the most fascinating take-away from this new film.
Gloria Molina, an East Los Angeles activist, illustrates how, at the time, the women had no allies: "We were talking about abortion rights and all issues of feminism at that time. [But] the Chicano movement, unfortunately, was all led by men [with] very much a very sexist kind of approach. So when we raised these issues to our brothers ... it was always considered a secondary issue to them.
"We wanted to create a waiting period for sterilization because we wanted to make sure we had truly informed consent, [but] this was totally offensive to white feminists. The feminists wanted sterilization upon demand. They basically opposed our waiting period they weren't really taking into account that if you're Spanish-speaking or if you don't speak English, you were being denied a right, totally."
Equally riveting are the interviews the filmmakers scored with some of the doctors and administrators of the USC obstetrics and gynecology department who were named in the lawsuit.
They are treated fairly in this film, but their self-defensive comments betray a lack of understanding of the biases and cultural blind spots that might have contributed to their role in irrevocably damaging these women's lives.
Joseph Levin, one of the women's lawyers, attributed the physicians' reluctance to cop to any wrongdoing to the fact that the women had signed their consent, albeit under duress: "If all they're going to do is look at a piece of paper and not think about who the patient is, what language the patient speaks, or where the patient came from, then, yeah, they can quite honestly, to themselves, rationalize it by saying, 'Well, I had a piece of paper.'"
Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld, the whistleblower who imperiled his own career to bring the women's mistreatment to light, put it this way: "No private doctor, ever, would go up to a woman in a private hospital while she was in labor and ask her if she wanted to get her tubes tied. He would have gotten probably thrown out of the hospital and sued by the patient."
"No Mas Bebes" is living history well worth learning about. The film airs this Monday, Feb. 1, at 10 p.m. Eastern on local PBS stations.