'No Mas Bebés' Casts Light on Medical Sterilizations

Maria Figueroa and Maria Hurtado in the nursery of L.A. County hospital. | Photo: Claudio Rocha.

The former building of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center loomed large in historian Virginia Espino's childhood experience of Los Angeles. While growing up in Highland Park in the 1970s, she remembers that from almost any vantage point in the surrounding neighborhoods, there sat this imposing structure, one people in the area referred to as "County." As a graduate student in the 1990s, she learned that the institution that had been a consistent fixture of her landscape while growing up, had also committed grave abuses that she had never known about as a child. The history of sterilization of Mexican immigrant women in the 1970s at the hospital was research she took on for her dissertation, research that 20 years later has served as the basis for the new documentary: "No Mas Bebés." Espino produced the film along with co-producer/director, Renee Tajima-Peña.

Film still of L.A. County Hospital. | Image: Courtesy Claudio Rocha.
Film still of L.A. County Hospital. | Image: Courtesy Claudio Rocha.

"No Mas Bebés," in English "No More Babies," tells the story of a momentous lawsuit, Madrigal vs. Quilligan, where 10 mothers sued the hospital after unknowingly being sterilized by doctors, under the leadership of the then Head of Obstetrics, Dr. Edward James Quilligan. The documentary features four of the original plaintiffs reflecting on their experience 40 years after the landmark case. The making of the film was Espino's first opportunity to meet the women and speak to them directly. Her original graduate research had relied only on court documents and writings from the lawyers and activists involved with the case. She recognized the archival documents offered her only one account of the story. "It just wasn't enough to get a sense of who these women were because they basically had to stick to what happened to them and how it destroyed them." The film was a chance to humanize their story and tell about them on a personal level, but also see them as actors in their own lives. "The documentary allowed us to get more insight into how they survived this. Not so much rooted in the idea that they were victims of this horrible abuse, but how they challenged that abuse, how they stopped it, and survived and moved on with their lives and with their families, " Espino says.


Maria Hurtado (left,) Virginia Espino (third from left) and crew filming in the L.A. County hospital. | Photo: Kevin Castro.
Maria Hurtado (left,) Virginia Espino (third from left) and crew filming in the L.A. County hospital. | Photo: Kevin Castro.

The film presents each woman's unique story, for instance that of Maria Hurtado, a proud woman with a sense of humor. We meet her entire family, along with her husband, who serenades us in song during the film. Espino points out that "her husband was really supportive of her and helped her to move forward." Based on overcoming this traumatic experience, Espino contends Hurtado was "very willing to show the world who she was and why she did what she did back in the 1970s." Not all the women were like Hurtado, and for some reliving their stories, only brought the trauma to the surface. Espino acknowledges that while they "tried [their] best to protect their privacy and respect their feelings," for some, like Dolores Madrigal, the namesake of the lawsuit, the experience "had destroyed her life" and this reality was "a wound that had not healed."

While the film both gave the women a space to speak, and made them vulnerable, recent audience responses support the idea that an intimate portrayal was likely productive in the end. At recent screenings at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Espino comments that by revealing "so many layers to their personality, people just fell in love with them and also saw them as heroes, which is what they were." The public presentations which will continue are grounded in one of the major goals for the film, to use it to start a "conversation about reproductive autonomy and how we obtain that today for our women and our girls," Espino comments.

Part of that work has begun already through a partnership with the nonprofit California Latinas for Reproductive Justice. The organization is one manifestation of the reproductive justice movement that was burgeoning in the 1970s. The documentary presents key context leading up to this organizing work, like federal policies on population control that targeted poor women and women of color, the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, and the national feminist movement.

Virginia Espino and Dolores Madrigal. | Photo: Courtesy of filmmakers.
Virginia Espino and Dolores Madrigal. | Photo: Courtesy of filmmakers.

Largely based on Espino's research, "No Mas Bebés" shows how Chicana feminists contributed to the concept of reproductive justice by understanding the experiences of the Mexican immigrant women that bore the case. During this time, many white feminists were calling for abortion and sterilization on demand as a legal right. Madrigal vs. Quilligan showed that for other women what was actually at risk, was the right to bear a child. "This was the precedent of informing the women's rights movement, that there were these other issues taking place at the intersection of gender, race and class," Espino asserts.

Recent events speak to the relevancy of the film today. The sterilization of women in California prisons in 2010, or a current law, known as Family Cap, which denies women on welfare additional assistance after the birth of another child, demonstrate the challenges poor women face in particular. "No Mas Bebés" continues the ongoing conversation on women's reproductive rights.


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