No Más Bebés, an Emmy-nominated film directed and produced by Renee Tajima-Peña & Virigina Espino, chronicles a previously untold story of abhorrent medical malpractice that plagued the Mexican and Mexican-American community in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Written by GOOD DOCS intern Fiona Creadon.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Mexican and Mexican-American women who went to the Los Angeles County USC Medical Center for cesarean or emergency cesarean procedures were being harassed by nurses to sign paperwork — that were not being properly explained to them — with the threat that “your baby probably could die,” as many women in the film recall. In actuality, the paperwork gave doctors consent to perform a tubal ligation-sterilization, more commonly referred to as “getting your tubes tied.” This meant that it would become impossible for these women to get pregnant after this procedure.
This practice was done as part of a national effort to address the concern of overpopulation. Many women in the film describe feeling violated and shocked when they received the news that they had been sterilized, and had no recollection of consenting to the procedure or understanding what the paperwork they had signed actually entailed — especially because many of them were in pain or had a language barrier at the time of signing the paperwork.
One of the major reasons why this information was able to come to light was due to the actions of Dr. Bernard Rosenfield, who initially tried to stop these practices within the hospital, but when this failed, he reached out to civil rights lawyers in the area in an attempt to start a lawsuit against the hospital. After striking out numerous times, he was finally able to get in contact with Antonia Hernandez, a recent UCLA law school graduate at the time. She began contacting the impacted women with the information she received from Dr. Rosenfield and described how challenging the process of revealing this information to the victims was, largely because she was the one to break the news to these women. Eventually, she convinced Dolores Madrigal to be a lead plaintiff, the first step that would allow them to build a case against the hospital.
Throughout the film it becomes clear that many of the women who had agreed to participate in the film had never discussed their forced sterilization with other members of their family, let alone publicly. A few of the women confided in their husbands experienced significant strife in their marital lives, and in a few cases, abuse as well. Many of the women recalled how dehumanizing the experience was and how deeply violating it felt. There was a significant range of ages between the women, with the youngest being 23 and the oldest being 39. Several revealed that they suffered from depression and even suicidal thoughts once this violation came to light.
In 1978, Madrigal v. Quilligan was filed and the film chronicles the case through its trial. The case was filed by 10 of the women affected, and while it is now considered to be a landmark case that ultimately changed the perceptions and conversations around forced sterilization, it ultimately lost in court. Many of the women described feeling deeply disappointed over the verdict and that the lack of justice was heartbreaking for them. Despite the case being lost, it did create a significant impact by 1) making interpreters available to patients so they could be made able to understand the procedure fully before signing paperwork and 2) leading to the formation of the MALDEF CRP, an advocacy group for Hispanic women’s rights.
While there is nothing that can be done to make up for the unimaginable loss that these women experienced at the hands of doctors with highly questionable ethics, being given a platform to tell their stories offers insight and information to future generations of women. Tajima-Peña & Espino’s masterfully crafted documentary empathetically laid out the facts of what happened by offering the women in the film an opportunity to tell their stories.