Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with contemporary American culture likely understands that female fertility has been a hotly contested, and highly politicized, issue for over forty years. Typically, these discussions revolve around abortion. There is, however, another side to reproductive choice: the right to reproduce. It is this often overlooked aspect of “a woman’s right to choose” recounted in Independent Lens “No Más Bebés,” premiering on PBS, Monday, February 1, 2016.
“No Más Bebés” chronicles the case of Madrigal v. Quilligan, an important, though relatively unknown class action lawsuit brought by ten Mexican immigrant women who were sterilized while giving birth at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in the 1960s and early 1970s. During the course of the lawsuit, the defendants — the physicians who performed the procedures — claimed that the women signed their consent, a claim that was both true and false. What happened was this: while in the throes of labor, or in the weary moments just after giving birth, each woman was given a document written in English and instructed to sign. Some of the women were told it was needed to save their babies; some misunderstood due to the language barrier (understanding, for example, their “tubes” could be “untied” at a later date, or that “sterilization” meant “cleaning”); and some were outright forced to sign. All, however, agreed to a medical procedure that resulted in a permanent end to their fertility. By signing, these women gave legal consent — but what they did not give was informed consent.
As historian Rebecca M. Kluchin explains in Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980, the plaintiffs of Madrigal v. Quilligan were only a few of many women to undergo forced sterilization in the United States at this time. Fear of overpopulation had entered mainstream public discourse, and population control advocates pointed at poor women and women of color as major sources of the problem. In an example of how class and racism can influence medical policy and practice, the U.S. government began funding sterilization projects that specifically targeted African American, Latina, and poor women around the country. One such project was implemented at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.
Along with bringing public scrutiny to systemic coerced sterilization, Madrigal v. Quilligan also highlighted the many chasms within civil rights activism. The lawsuit’s whistleblower and legal team initially found very little support from activist groups, including white feminists who were, until that point, leading the reproductive rights movement. Jennifer Nelson describes in Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement that early mainstream feminism was focused primarily on the right to limit fertility. Most did not see ending sterilization as an important demand. By the end of the 1970s, however, the feminist movement expanded its goals to include both the right to end pregnancy and the right to have children. This shift, Nelson argues, was due to African American and Chicana activists — and brave women like the ten “powerless, poor women from the barrio” who stood up to the institutionalized racism within the U.S. medical establishment.
Within this context of Chicana activism and the emerging reproductive justice movement, “No Más Bebés” crafts a compelling narrative of the way race, public health, and good intentions came together to create something unthinkable — and left the women affected with “no more babies.”
Rebecca Klutchin, Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980 (Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 2009).
Jennifer Nelson, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement (New York: NYU Press, 2003).