Imagine you’re in a hospital, about to deliver a baby. You’re in labor — the pain is excruciating. You’ve been told that you need a cesarean section, so you’re pushed into the sterile hallway on a gurney, a team of masked medical residents rushing around you. One of them holds a piece of paper in one hand, a syringe in the other.
He offers you the shot: it’ll take away the pain. Before he injects the numbing medicine, however, he pushes his paper under your shaking hand, demanding that you sign the consent form first. You can’t read the paper; it’s written in a foreign language and your eyes are blurred from labor anyway. You sign on the line; the pain lessens.
Then you’re wheeled into the room where you’ll unknowingly deliver your final child.
Such was the harrowing experience of hundreds of poor, predominantly Mexican-American mothers at the Los Angeles County Hospital in the 1970s. “No Más Bebés” (or “No More Babies”), a documentary released last June and shown at the 2016 Ann Arbor Film Festival this month, tells the story of 10 women whose fallopian tubes were cut without their consent after giving birth in L.A. The film follows the 1975 lawsuit, Madrigal v. Quilligan, in which the women sued L.A. doctors for forced sterilization — a landmark case in reproductive rights for all women, regardless of race or ethnicity.
“No Más Bebés” begins where, for too many women, their story ended: in the maternity ward of the now-abandoned L.A. hospital. Maria Hurtado, one of the original plaintiffs, surveys the room quietly and says, “I’m not one to show a lot of sweetness or tenderness. Or pain … but inside I feel pain, remembering.”
Remembering what happened in the ’70s — and accepting it — was one of the most difficult challenges for the women in “No Más Bebés.” When Oscar-nominated director Renee Tajima-Peña (“Who Killed Vincent Chin?”) started what would become a six-year project, she had only a handful of aged court documents to locate the women — and even if she found them, many didn’t want to revisit such painful memories in an interview.
Some women, including Hurtado and four fellow plaintiffs in the case, did tell what happened in the hospital, the courtroom and amid the aftermath of the court ruling. Each shared a similar story: they were poor, young (in their early 20s and 30s), married Latinas who had dreams of raising large families. In their culture, they explained, a woman’s role was to be a mother; if she couldn’t reproduce and raise children, she was “no longer a woman.”
As one woman heartbreakingly said after her sterilization, “Now, my song is finished.”
Sadly, many women didn’t know they’d been sterilized until Antonia Hernandez, their lawyer, showed them confidential hospital records of the sterilizations, which she gathered from a brave medical resident who had carefully documented the acts. Realizing their condition, many of the women bore the knowledge of their sterility alone, fearing their husbands would leave them or they’d be shamed by their communities.
A question undercuts the film: why did it happen? Racism, elitism and sexism all played a role in the horrific acts. In the ’70s, fear of overpopulation was rampant in the U.S. — Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb,” which forecasted the end of humanity due to overcrowding, was a 1968 bestseller — and the government began funding hospitals to control population growth.
America’s prime targets for population control? Poor, non-native or illiterate mothers. Women who couldn’t read or understand what they were agreeing to: one woman, hearing the word “sterilize,” thought the doctors were simply cleaning her reproductive system. Women who had babies already, who were told, “Don’t cry, it’s best for you not to have any more children.”
Tajima-Peña told the Los Angeles Times that she only makes films when something makes her mad. “I thought that these mothers had a right to be heard,” she said in her interview. “No Más Bebés” represents the mothers beautifully, giving their voices center stage; there’s no narrating voiceover. Rather than clever recreations, the story is shot in present time, in the mothers’ kitchens and living rooms.
Each scene echoes with something lost — an empty space where a child should be, a sad smile — but it reverberates with something else: the sheer strength of the women who won’t be silenced, not in the 1970s and not today.