Tag Archives: Elena R. Gutiérrez

Commentary on “No Más Bebés”

Photo of Madrigal plaintiffs at world premiere of No Mas Bebes in June, Getty Images. Picture provided by author.

Photo of Madrigal plaintiffs at the world premiere of No Mas Bebes in June, Getty Images. Picture provided by author.

Elena R. Gutiérrez

On February 1, 2016 PBS’ “Independent Lens” will air the critically-acclaimed documentary, No Más Bebés (No More Babies), which details the forced sterilization of Mexican-origin women at Los Angeles County Medical Center (LACMC) in the 1970s (check local channels for listings). Narrated through the recollections of patients, doctors, lawyers, activists and others directly involved, the film focuses upon the case of Madrigal v. Quilligan, the lawsuit filed by 10 forcibly-sterilized women against LACMA, Los Angeles County, the State of California, and the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare for violating their right to procreate. Beyond detailing the events that occurred in the hospital birthing ward and courtroom, director/producer Renee Tajima-Peña and producer Virginia Espino take us into the streets and homes of Los Angeles, where they were also born and raised. Through on-camera testimonies from several of the women who are breaking their silence on the topic for the first time since the lawsuit, the film shows us the current realities and ruminations of the plaintiffs and their families, as well as the physician defendants and their legal teams.

It is the portrait of who are now known as the #Madrigal10 that offers the film’s most powerful contribution to our understanding of this painful, yet important, part of US history. Often characterized as poor, uneducated and powerless victims within early reproductive rights scholarship, No Más Bebés show the plaintiffs represented in the suit once again speaking out about the abuse they endured, and demanding answers to the question “why?” In recalling their experiences, the women directly dispel stereotypes of them as quiet, suffering victims who could not communicate. Instead, the viewers see them as committed, thoughtful and often humorous individuals who have insightful analyses of the events in the hospital and courtroom that impacted their lives and families so deeply. Premiering on the heels of the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, upon which their suit was based, No Más Bebés elevates the voices of the plaintiffs involved in the Madrigal trial to finally tell a national audience, in their own words, why reproductive justice necessitates to engage with so much more than legal access to abortion. Moreover, the film reminds us that women of Mexican descent have been on the forefront of struggles for the right to have children since before the term “reproductive justice” was coined.

As one of several significant episodes of sterilization abuse of Latinas in the United States, the events that occurred at LACMC are now well-documented in the academic record (Velez 1980, Espino 2000, Gutiérrez 2008, Stern 2015). Scholars in various disciplines (anthropology, history, sociology) have found that the sterilization abuse that occurred at LACMA was influenced by racial, class and gender bias. Doctors or other hospital personnel would often approach patients of Mexican-origin when they were at their most vulnerable; namely, in the midst of giving birth. Further, these doctors used coercive measures (lying, scare tactics, physical force) to get women to agree to sterilization.

Despite the fact that birthing women of Mexican descent are at the center of these events, beyond drawing from their trial testimonies and media accounts, academic scholarship has never captured the experiences of the plaintiffs who participated in the Madrigal case. In my own efforts, I was only able to locate the son of one of the women involved. A crucial part of the story that No Más Bebés portrays well is the plaintiffs’ own recollections of the events that took place. All of the women who we meet in the film share that they, themselves, believed that they were sterilized specifically because they were Latina and poor. They also share how it felt to participate in a lawsuit where the odds were clearly stacked against them because of racial and class discrimination. Despite the court’s decision on the side of the defendant doctors, a legislative decision was made ordering new protocols relative to sterilization consent forms that were written in a patient’s language and at a 6th grade reading level. A 72-hour waiting period between the consent signature and the procedure was also put into place, to help ensure that no coercion on the part of medical professionals would occur. Resulting from the testimonies of the #Madrigal10, together with the efforts of Chicana advocates, consent procedures were established that remain in place to this day.

No Más Bebés also shows that socially grounded attitudes relating to ethnicity and gender can play a role in the provision of reproductive health care services; a message that is important for us to hear today. In my own research I show that the abusive practices that occurred at LACMC were not only shaped by debates on population control, but also by concerns about increased immigration from Mexico and the stereotype that Mexican women gave birth to too many children. Through tracing newspaper articles, organizational records and scholarly research in Fertile Matters: The Politics of Mexican-origin Women’s Reproduction, I show how these “stereotypes” about Mexican immigrant women being hyper-fertile and “having too many children” are deeply-rooted beliefs that are part and parcel of institutionalized racism and were perpetuated by the media, social science, and immigration control activists throughout the 20th century carrying into the 21st century. Beyond representations of the perpetually “pregnant pilgrim” who came to the United States purposefully to have children born on US soil so that that they could become American citizens (an idea perpetuated in both Mexican news media and popular culture), “hyperfertility” as a social construct became significantly entrenched in academia, and has thus gained legitimacy in both scholarly research and policy response. I argue that this context and the general public perception that Latina women are significantly more “fertile” than women of other races and ethnicities influenced medical practitioners’ behaviors.

A growing amount of research shows that fear about discrimination in public hospitals prevents immigrant women from seeking care. Last September, a Houston mother faced deportation after being arrested during a visit to the gynecologist’s office. Fantasies and fears of the “anchor baby” have now been institutionalized and incorporated into our national lexicon. Thus, while times have changed, these ideologies continue to persist. It is precisely because of enduring stereotypes of Mexican origin women’s hyperfertility, that we must listen carefully to the lessons that the #Madrigal10 recount, and use them to link historical events to contemporary struggles for reproductive justice within Latina/o communities.

Virginia Espino, “‘Woman Sterilized As Gives Birth’: Forced Sterilization and Chicana Resistance in the 1970s” in Vicki L. Ruiz ed. Las Obreras: Chicana Politics of Work and Family (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Publications, 2000), 65-82.
Alyshia Galvez, Patient Citizens, Immigrant Mothers: Mexican Women, Public Prenatal Care and the Birth Weight Paradox (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011).

Elena R. Gutiérrez, Fertile Matters: The Politics of Mexican-origin Women’s Reproduction (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008).

Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in America, second edition (University of California Press, 2015)

Carlos Velez, “’Se Me Acabo La Cancion’: An Ethnography of Non-Consenting Sterilizations among Mexican Women in Los Angeles,” in Mexican Women in the United States: Struggles Pas and Present, ed. Magdalena Mora and Adelaida Del Castillo, 71-91 (Los Angeles: Chicano Studies Research Center, University of California, Los Angeles, 1980).

Further Resources:
To plan a viewing party: https://www.facebook.com/events/427368670794212/

Elena R. Gutierrez is an Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago.  She is also co-author of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice, which will be reprinted by Haymarket Press in April and director of the Reproductive Justice Virtual Library https://www.law.berkeley.edu/centers/center-on-reproductive-rights-and-justice/crrj-reproductive-justice-virtual-library/.

Latinas and Roe v. Wade

January 21, 2013

Photo by We Are Woman, Aug 25, 2012, Flickr/Creative Commons License.

Photo by We Are Woman, Aug 25, 2012, Flickr/Creative Commons License.

By Elena R. Gutiérrez

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” MLK

In watching the unfolding online celebration of the fortieth anniversary of Roe v Wade  (January 22, 2013), it is undeniable that the voices of women of color have been present and impactful in changing the landscape of abortion organizing over the past four decades. While Planned Parenthood’s decision to step away from the pro-choice framework may be the most recent indicator that the mainstream reproductive rights movement has finally understood that for most women terminating a pregnancy is anything but a “choice,” I have been struck by several articles and blogs, more than ever before written by Latinas, commenting upon what this landmark legislation currently means for our communities.[1]

It is not that this is a new occurrence—Latinas have advocated for issues of reproductive health, including pregnancy termination, for longer than Roe v. Wade has been in existence. However, it has been refreshing to read a number of public opinions and perspectives that directly engage how and why abortion is significant in Latina lives; although all authors inevitably point out that what is popularly perceived as open access to abortion in the United States is hardly the reality for most Latinas. As one “Anonymous- Reproductive Justice Advocate” notes: “The legality of Roe v. Wade does not reflect our country’s culture where sex education is often times limited to abstinence-only, access to birth control and abortions services is disproportionate, and interactions perpetuate slut-bashing where sexually-active youth are labeled as ‘too sexual.'”[2]

While the anonymity of the author may signal how much further we have to go in creating social safety for the one in three women who have abortions, especially those who are young, her insights indicate how the politics of abortion go beyond legal access to the actual medical procedure and speak to the broader cultural context and economic circumstances within which women live. As reproductive justice advocates have argued for decades, it is only within this broader framework that we can speak about the significance of Roe v. Wade for Latinas.

The importance of financial access to abortion has in fact become memorialized internationally in the life of Rosie Jimenez, who is commonly believed to be the first known death by illegal abortion after the passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1977.  Hyde cut off Medicaid funding for abortion to women on public assistance — women who by the government’s own definition cannot afford health care. Rosaura (Rosie) Jimenez, was a mother and college student living in McAllen, Texas, in the late 1970s.  The daughter of Mexican migrant farm-workers, Rosie was a single mother raising her 5-year-old daughter and also a student six months away from her teaching credential.

In her final semester of school, Rosie realized that she was once again pregnant. However, too financially strapped to pay for a safe and legal procedure at a clinic, she found a cheaper alternative. She ended up going to an illegal abortionist who used unsterilized instruments to complete her surgery. Within a week, Rosie suffered a painful death from an infection that ravaged her body. A $700 scholarship check was found in her purse when she died on October 3, 1977, at the age of 27. She could have used her college money for safe abortion care at a clinic, but she was saving it for her education.

Although it is almost thirty-five years after the death of Rosie Jimenez, the recently published commentary on Roe’s anniversary echo a reality that is still very common for Latinas in the US. In fact, more women than ever since the legalization of abortion will find themselves in the circumstances faced by Rosie Jimenez should they face an unintended pregnancy.[3] More Latinas (37 percent) are uninsured than women of any other racial or ethnic group, and more than a quarter of Latinas live in poverty.[4]  Despite the fact that they are also more likely to live in areas with poor access to family planning services, Latinas have abortions at disproportionate rates; with estimates of between 17-20% of women in the U.S. having abortions being Latina.[5] When we take into account the circumstances of newly immigrant Latinas, who have little financial and social assistance and may fear deportation, or dealing with providers who do not speak Spanish, the circumstances are even more challenging.

These numbers show that Catholic or not, Latinas do have abortions, not because they are making that “choice,” but for many, because the circumstances of their lives may offer no other choice. Moreover, current research suggests than rather than being staunchly against it, Latinos hold compassionate views about abortion.[6] But perhaps what is most notable at this particular moment is that Latinas continue to be at the forefront of reproductive health and justice organizing. From working for legal and policy change to providing health care and participating in grassroots mobilization, for over forty years these advocates have insisted that true reproductive “choice” necessitates an understanding of the many factors that impact women’s reproductive options.

While access to the termination of a pregnancy through legal abortion is critical, it is insufficient. True reproductive justice efforts must also strive to create a society in which any person has the freedom and resources to not have a child, or to have as many as they want. All people have the right to parent the children they have with full access to the social resources necessary to raise them in safe and healthy environments, without fear of violence from individuals or intervention by the government. This includes making assistive reproductive technologies available, funding education, investing in health care reform for all, ensuring food safety and security and prioritizing the unification of our families. That we guarantee all of these options for all people regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, or physical ability, is fundamental to creating true reproductive justice.

If you would like to learn more about Latinas and abortion, reproductive justice or efforts to end the Hyde Amendment:

1. Join the Strong Families tweet: What has Roe v. Wade meant for communities of color? Jan 22nd, 9am #Roeat40 #Roeat40chat

2. Participate in a “Talking About Abortion” e-LOLA (Latinas Organizing for Leadership and Advocacy) hosted by the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (Jan. 22-23; offered in English and Spanish)

3.  If you can’t make the training above, you can refer to many bi-lingual fact sheets and policy analyses offered by the NLIRH at: www.latinainstitute.org/issues/abortion-access.

4. Find out about the abortion laws in your state, and the existence of an abortion fund (check out http://www.fundabortionnow.org/). These are the folks who will be able to assist someone in your area if needed and are a great resource.

5.  Find out if there is a reproductive justice organization in your state.  Volunteer, recommend, donate and keep connected to the issues.


Elena R. Gutiérrez is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is the author of Fertile Matters: The Politics of Mexican-origin Women’s Reproduction, co-author of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice, and is a member of the Mujeres Talk Editorial Colectiva.

[1] For example: Strong Families, Still Wading: Forty Years of Resistence, Resilience and Reclamation in Communities of Color, www.reproductivejusticeblog.org, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice http: //www.californialatinas.org/a-young-latinas-reflection-on-choice; “Latino Attitudes on Abortion: Roe v Wade 40 years later. 1/17/13 www.hispanicallyspeakingnews.com/latino-daily-news/details

[2]  Anonymous, “A Young Latina’s Reflection on Choice,” California Latinas for Reproductive Justice http://www.californialatinas.org/a-young-latinas-reflection-on-choice)
[3] The Guttmacher Institute recently reported that during 2011 and 2012 more abortion restrictions were enacted in U.S. states than in at any other previous years. 2011 marked a record high, with 92 pieces of legislation being passed throughout the country. Guttmacher Institute, “2012 Saw Second-Highest Number of Abortion Restrictions Ever,” guttmacher.org.media/inthenews/2013/01/02/index.html. 1/2/13.
[4] Hope Gillette, “Cervical Cancer Awareness: Latinas At Greater Risk, ‘Third Most Likely Group To Die Of The Disease.” Huffington Post Online 1/14/2013.
[5] National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. (2004) “Latinas and Abortion Access: Issue Brief,” latinainstitute.org/sites/default/files/publications/AbortionIssueBrief.pdf.

[6] National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. (2011). “Latino Abortion Attitude Polling” http://latinainstitute.org/publications/Poll-Latino-Voters-Hold-Compassionate-Views-on-Abortion

Felicity Amaya Schaeffer    January 25, 2013 at 5:29 AM

Thank you Elena for such a timely and powerful post. You remind us of the limits of liberal “rights” frameworks in erasing the barriers faced by poor women of color. People like to blame women’s “cultural” silence about sex in the family as the ultimate barrier to them seeking legal abortions, erasing the entire structure of poverty and lack of healthcare access. Another aspect of reproductive justice we need to fight against is the insidious way undocumented migrant parents are increasingly losing their children to child services and foster care. They are increasingly constructed as irresponsible parents – simply due to the fact that they do not speak English and because of the “risks” posed by being undocumented, which of course means today that they are likely to face prison time, detention, and deportation. Thank you for your post!