LOS ANGELES – Several Latin American women were unknowingly sterilized after giving birth at a Los Angeles hospital in the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to a new documentary film to be broadcast next Monday on the American PBS channel.
“No mas bebes” (No more babies) focuses on the complaint of 10 Latin American women which was presented to the judges in Los Angeles for having been sterilized when they gave birth at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.
The movie is the result of six years of work by director Renee Tajima-Peña and producer Virginia Espino to find out who was involved in the incidents that were buried in oblivion for decades.
These were women who had delivery complications and that, according to the plaintiffs, were given forms in English, though many spoke only Spanish.
They gave their consent to sterilization when they were on medication and unaware of the forms’ content. Some were even encouraged or forced by the medical staff of the hospital, who took their hands to sign the papers.
“The common denominator of these stories is that these women told us they did not want to be sterilized,” director Renee Tajima-Peña told EFE in an interview.
She added that the precise time of delivery, “when your baby and his birth are in danger,” does not seem “the best time” to decide on a tubal ligation, referring to a sterilization method where a woman’s fallopian tubes are clamped or even cut.
A lack of appropriate information caused many of these women to return home with no idea the operation happened.
“Some did not know it until lawyers knocked at their door years later,” confirmed Tajima-Peña.
The case came to light because of Bernard Rosenfeld, a young doctor of the hospital who noticed bad maternity care practices in the hospital in the 1970s.
When he collected evidence, he contacted two young civil rights attorneys, Antonia Hernandez and Charles Nabarrette, who tried to locate and convince some of these women to put together a collective complaint.
It was a tough task as many of these women come from traditional families. For them not being a fertile woman could be a source of stigma for which they were ashamed and in some cases did not even tell their families.
Finally, 10 women of Latin American origin dared to take a step forward and report their case, an act that speaks much of their courage according to Tajima-Peña, since they went to court at a time when, in Los Angeles “all institutions were run by white men.”
The director talks about a “perfect storm” of issues that could cause undesirable sterilization, which also occurred in other parts of the country: lack of correct information, discrimination against the poor, racist attitudes towards immigrants, a fear of global overpopulation (a common concern in that period) or bad practices and conditions at the hospital.
Nevertheless, these women lost the case in court and they did not receive any compensation for what happened, although shortly afterwards an important victory was achieved due to their protest: hospitals in California would be required to provide bilingual forms in English and Spanish.
The documentary also tells the story of these women after what happened and how they tried to move forward with their families.
Tajima-Peña underlined that it was precisely the encouragement of their children, some of whom had recently learned of what happened to their mothers, which encouraged them to tell their story in the documentary.
“‘Mom, tell your story. We want people to hear your story,’ they said. And that was what persuaded the mothers to go in front of the camera,” concluded the director.