Tag Archives: Reproductive Justice

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/.

Thoughts on Limbaugh, Sex for Pleasure and Birth Control

March 26, 2012

By Ella Diaz

"Prevention" by brains the head

“Prevention” by brains the head

The recent radio blast by Rush Limbaugh regarding 3rd year law school student, Sandra Fluke, and her advocacy for female student rights to contraception at Georgetown University was jarring for this MALCS blogger. Sandra Fluke was verbally attacked by Rush Limbaugh and I was shocked by the hatred for a particular type of woman in this country. This particular type of woman is like me and you: she is well-educated, articulate, progressive in her politics, and feminist in her worldview and praxis. This particular type of woman is definitely a symbolic threat in our high-security-times in the U.S., a period in which our law enforcement seeks control and surveillance at all levels of society. While many may write off Limbaugh’s attack of Fluke as belligerent, or out of touch, the fact is that global misogyny and feminicide is exploding and undeniable. Left unchecked for so long, it is now rearing its head more visibly in the affluent and privileged classes. In other words, it is of no concern to Fluke’s detractors if she is white, married, a mother, or culturally conservative as she definitely demonstrated in her interview with journalist Amy Goodman on February 17, 2012, which you can watch at: http://www.democracynow.org/2012/2/17/where_are_the_women_lawmakers_walk

Fluke was barred from testifying in front of a Congressional panel considering contraception coverage by religious institutions. (Let’s bear in mind that religious institutions are completely entitled to their points of view on the topic, but health care providers are not.) In her interview, Goodman asked Fluke to respond to the charge that the government should not be involved in women’s reproductive choices; Fluke replied that the issue was actually about women’s health. She gave an example of a colleague who suffers from polycystic ovarian syndrome and is under-going premature menopause because she doesn’t have access to birth control at Georgetown, proving her point that doctors prescribe birth control for women’s health issues; it is not merely a family planning tool or a way to avoid having babies. Fluke also made sure to qualify herself as a married (a.k.a. monogamous) woman in her interview with Goodman. Verbal attacks and cultural campaigns against professional women who speak publicly about their bodies will only increase in the coming months leading up to the election.

While I applaud Fluke’s smart strategy for countering mainstream presumptions about why women use birth control, I wonder if it only maintains patriarchal standards for women? I mean, I’m not married, I don’t have or desire any kids, and I am sexually active. With nothing to be ashamed of, I would like to confront Limbaugh’s carefully laid out rationale for why women such as me should post our sexual activities on the internet, since we expect the government to pay us to have sex. Oh, yes, folks, I am not putting words in his mouth or even paraphrasing:

Rush Limbaugh“What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? Makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex, she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

Limbaugh went onto propose that if the government pays for Fluke to have sex, we as taxpayers should get something; we should be able to watch.

The problem, though, is we have already been watching for years. It’s just been someone else’s good time. Everyday we watch ads and infomercials for various men’s enhancements and desire supplements. From Extenze and Viagra commercials, to Trojan Man ads, men’s desire and virility remains perfectly natural and central to the cultural norm in the twenty-first-century. Recently, a series of K-Y Jelly ads have featured mutual “satisfaction,” but I noticed how the ads frame pleasure through a particular moralist and racial understanding of sex.  From the several commercials I have caught, they are always heterosexual couples who are always in bed and of the same race. This is what acceptable sex looks like. Message received.

Limbaugh also issued two apologies in the following weeks, the first was calculated and smug; the second more sober, given that about fifty sponsors had pulled out. The other day in a conversation about the incident I was told that the whole Sandra Fluke debacle was a distraction—a planned event to get us easy-to-rile-“femi-nazis” upset and off topic. I mean, there are so many other important issues facing the nation—gas prices, employment opportunities flat-lining, and the economic downturn. But while I was told not to get too worked up over nothing, a bill in Arizona nears passage (at the date of this blog) that will allow any employer to opt out of providing contraception coverage. Women who seek reimbursement would have to prove they’re using it for medical reasons, and not birth control. Georgia’s state senate also voted to ban abortion coverage under the state employee’s healthcare plan. The New Hampshire State House passed a similar measure. In Utah, legislation has been passed that would make their state the first to ban public schools from teaching contraception as a way to prevent pregnancy or STDs. The Virginia senate passed a bill requiring an ultrasound via vaginal or topical probe for every patient prior to undergoing an abortion. For more, on this whirlwind of legislation, please see:http://www.democracynow.org/2012/3/19/ina_may_gaskin_on_rising_us

Ella Diaz is a Visiting Faculty member at the San Francisco Art Institute. Her Ph.D. in American Studies is from the College of William and Mary. Diaz is an At Large Representative of MALCS.


Mujeres Talk Moderator  June 2, 2012 at 6:24 AM

Ella, your blog essay had 179 pageviews on the day it was posted and I recently heard someone mention at a conference how much they liked it! Thanks for speaking out on Latina reproductive health.