In 1975, 10 Mexican immigrants sued the United States government, Los Angeles county doctors and the state of California for allegedly violating their civil rights. This moment in history is the focus of No Más Bebés – or, No More Babies – a documentary that aired on on PBS this week after premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year. The film was directed and produced by Renee Tajima-Peña and Virginia Espino, a historian who wrote her dissertation on the film’s premise, according to NPR. It features five of the original complainants and four of the doctors who were involved.
The ten women in the case shared similar stories: all were admitted to the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the 1960s and 1970s to give birth and left the hospital sterilized, told that they had signed consent forms for the procedure or advised by a medical professional that an emergency cesarean section would be the only chance to save the life of the baby and the mother. “I don’t remember signing the consent form,” Consuelo Hermosillo, told the LA Times last year. “They decided for me.” The consent forms were written in English, while many of the women only spoke Spanish and some of whom were denied pain medicine until the paperwork was signed.
The women sued the government, for having been sterilized without their consent, and the lawsuit, Madrigal v. Quilligan, was one of the first to use Roe v. Wade to argue a woman’s right to bear children.
Forced sterilizations of poor non-white women were common in the United States during the last century. Women of Native American, Puerto Rican, African-American descent in at least 30 states were privy to unwanted sterilizations funded by a government programs aimed at population control. California was responsible for one-third of these overall sterilizations, performed mostly on Spanish-speaking women.