Rene Tajima-Pena latest documentary No Mas Bebes brings to light the non consensual, sterilization of Mexican-American women in the 1970s. The film follows just four of the many women who were unknowingly subjected to sterilization at a Los Angeles hospital. While in labor, the four women were told that they had to undergo an emergency c section operation in order to save their child’s life. At the same time that the women were being rushed to the operating room, nurses pressured the four women to sign release papers that the women were under the impression were related to their c section, but in reality that granted the doctor permission to sterilize them. None of the nurses fully explained the papers to the four women and translation was never provided to any of the victims, all of whom spoke only Spanish. It took many of the women in the film months, some even years, before they found out what had been done to them. It wasn’t until Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld, a white doctor, started drawing attention to the sterilizations that the case starts receiving attention and ultimately makes its way into the courts.
While we will be covering the topics of Eugenics within the next few weeks, we have already been exposed to some of its major tenets already. From Toni Morrison’s Home to Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, people of color, especially women, have historically been sterilized at the hands of medical personnel who have abused their powers by performing non consensual procedures on unwilling participants. In this specific film, we learn that during this time there was a large fear of overpopulation which led to these non consensual sterilizations. Unsurprisingly, we also learn that these procedures were mainly performed on women of color, even though white women were also having large families during this time. The film highlights how sterilization was not only a gendered experience, but a racialized one as well.
When I finished watching the film, I was left with many questions and thoughts of “what could have happened.” I think the film does an excellent job of dispelling the idea that we are far removed from the Eugenics movement and that it was simply something that happened in the past. These women are alive and well today and their mere existence actively challenges this narrative. Still, I’m left wondering what would have happened had a white doctor not called out the abuses. Would the women’s stories have gone untold? Or would have someone else spoken up eventually? The film still has me dwelling on the topic of white privilege and how this privilege, although its unfair, can be used to draw attention to these types of abuses.