No Más Bebés Documents the Sterilization of Mexican-American Women During the 1970s

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.


One thought on “No Más Bebés Documents the Sterilization of Mexican-American Women During the 1970s”

  1. To rob a woman of her ability to bear children and to rid the world of future generations is probably one of the evilest things one could do, especially when it happens in a hospital, which in western civilizations is regarded as a sanctuary of health and support. I think that the problem discussed in No Más Bebés extends even further than the lack of consent, as consent involves being aware of what is being done to you, but is an issue of medical scheming and clinical deceit and exploitation of the women’s instantaneous fragile health and pain. The fact that no one raised their finger to provide a Spanish translator is aggravating too and makes me associate the situation with imagining the physicians impatiently waiting for a woman of color to sterilize just because they had that power.
    I suppose that one of the questions this documentary would raise is the lack of respect to the body not only as a physical entity, but also as the container of a mind and personality that has the absolute right to voice its concerns, opinions and disagreements. I find the fact that it was a white doctor who opposed the deeds of the staff of the hospital and raised awareness of the forced sterilization again a matter of respect, and respect in this situation is both gendered and racialized, as you mentioned in your post.
    I agree with your point that the privilege of being white is necessary to unveil the occurrences in the LA hospital and it just makes me think that the world 40 years ago was still very eugenic and very medieval, due to its understandings that power grants authority over the body. Moreover, isn’t it absolutely unprofessional for a physician to harm intentionally his/her patients, when they most probably have sworn by the Hippocratic oath that they will ‘’apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism‘’ and that they ‘’will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug’’? Given our experience with Western medicine so far in relation to this oath which is still in effect today, I believe that medicine was equated to tyranny and abuse and that these four unfortunate women might have preferred giving birth at home and suffering through the complications, and I cannot find the words to explain how mad this makes me.

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