In the 1970s, women of the Latina community were sterilized during childbirth in a Los Angeles County hospital without full consent. This sterilization was part of a greater goal to stop poor Hispanic women in Los Angeles from continuing to reproduce when they were thought to not be able to support their children.
On Tuesday March 13, the California Lutheran University Center for Equality and Justice screened the film ‘No Más Bebés’, a documentary on the little-known 1970s Latina sterilization and court case where women were forced to sign papers they would not know meant their sterilization.
Student Program Coordinator for the Center for Equality and Justice Andres Elvira shared his thoughts planning this event and the relevance it has to the Cal Lutheran community.
“It’s really interesting that this film highlights how USC and the medical center here in Los Angeles were responsible for that. When you think of these kinds of things, you don’t think of it as taking place in California, such a progressive place,” Elvira said.
Elvira highlighted that the CEJ strives to put on events aimed around social justice and awareness to encourage people to think about issues in a different light.
“We like to showcase different stories and events that not many people know about to shed some light on issues that aren’t mainstream and given a lot of coverage,” Elvira said.
As the film began, the energy in the room quickly became somber as viewers heard emotional testimonies from women who had been sterilized nearly 40 years ago.
As these young women entered the county hospital to deliver their children, hours into their labor they were told they needed to sign a piece of paper to deliver their baby. Some of these women were told this while 5cm dilated.
“You better sign those papers or your baby could die here,” one sterilized woman recounted in the film.
Some doctors would not give women pain medication during labor until they signed forms that consented to a Tubal Ligation, preventing them from having children again. In addition to the insensitive timing of the forms, the forms were written in English and given to women who could not speak or read it. If the doctors did attempt to explain anything, the language barrier led to misinterpretations of medical terms and a lack of understanding by the patients.
There was a trial that began in 1978 that concluded with a ruling in favor of the hospital, county, doctors and state. The Latina women shared how heartbreaking this ruling was, however they did highlight the systematic change they influenced. After this case, the federal government agreed to provide bilingual consent forms and translators for women who did not speak English.
The Cal Lutheran event brought many students together, most students coming as part of their Women Studies class or Sociology class. Students Joelle Debeaumont and Shayna Bergenfeld were both in attendance for their Women Studies class and shared their experience viewing the film.
“We always think of social injustices as something that happen far away, but it happened right here where we are and that’s kind of crazy to me,” Debeaumont said.
Bergenfeld took this film personally and felt connected to the message they were portraying.
“It kind of pissed me off. While I was watching it, I was thinking about what it would be like if I was forced to not have kids. Obviously we have other things to do in this world, but only women can give birth. You’re connected to another life force; that’s a huge thing. To have someone take that away, especially without your consent, is just disgusting to me,” Bergenfeld said.
Many students shared their thoughts and questions about the film following the screening, some wondering what this means for them as Hispanic women today and others questioning any relation this may have to other reproductive right movements also happening at the time.
Despite this injustice happening decades ago, Debeaumont said she believes we can still learn something and apply it to our lives today.
“I think it’s important for all of us to know about social injustices in the past so we can fight for social injustices happening now. It’s also important for us to know the history of what people have fought for us so we can continue to fight for what we need,” Debeaumont said.