For many low-income residents, the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center was a beacon of hope. It’s where low-income Angelenos went to get better. Marilyn Monroe is said to have been born in the charity ward of the county hospital in 1926.
But No Más Bebés, a documentary having its broadcast premiere on PBS Monday, explores the little known tragedies that unfolded there in the 1960s and 1970s, when demographics in the region had shifted.
In 1978 a small group of Mexican immigrant mothers and activists sued county doctors and the U.S. government after they were sterilized while giving birth at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. Doctors reasoned at the time that the women had already had too many children.
“They looked at me and must’ve thought, ‘This one has so many kids [so] we’ll just sew her up so she won’t know that we did the operation,'” said Maria Hurtado, one of the 10 complaintants named in the lawsuit, in an interview included in the documentary.
Some of the women claimed they never signed consent forms to be sterilized. Others said they were in labor and told their pregnancy could have a tragic end if they didn’t sign the papers. One woman was told “you better sign those papers or your baby could probably die here.” Lead plaintiff Dolores Madrigal, a factory worker and mother of two, was assured that her tubes could be “untied” later.
In the exclusive clip seen above, the filmmakers recount how a 26-year-old Chicana lawyer representing the women argued that a woman’s right to bear a child is guaranteed under the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade.
“Like most middle-class women, to me Roe v. Wade meant the right to abortion,” said director Renee Tajima-Peña in a statement sent to Fusion. “I never considered I would ever be denied the choice to have a baby.”
“Forty years ago, these women were talking about reproductive justice in a way that was ahead of their time. They understood that their race, poverty, and legal status affected whether or not they had any choice at all,” said Tajima-Peña.
The documentary features interviews with five of the ten complainants who were part of the landmark 1975 civil rights lawsuit, Madrigal v. Quilligan. Director Tajima-Peña and producer Virginia Espino spent six years tracking down the mothers.
The film also includes interviews with medical students and residents who recount being disturbed by the practices they were seeing.
“They were extremely fearful being in the foreign situation being told that you need emergency cesarian section and feel blood pouring down your leg and at the time signing a consent form for stabilization,” Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld says in the film.
Dr. Rosenfeld was interning at the L.A. county hospital when he started writing to civil rights groups about what he was seeing in the hospital. He became a whistleblower when he took confidential documents from the hospital to attorneys Antonia Hernandez and Charles Nabarrete at the Model Cities Center for Law and Justice.
The documentary also includes interviews with the doctors who were named as defendants in the case. They deny any wrongdoing, describing the maternity ward of the county hospital as a “war zone,” where so many women waited on gurneys in the hallways to give birth.
In 1978 Judge Jesse Curtis ruled in favor of the medical center and its doctors, declaring the sterilizations resulted from miscommunication rather than malice. The case did lead to conversations that led to hospitals offering more medical forms in Spanish.
Dr. Rosenfeld was able to shed light on what was happening at the L.A. County hospital but the practice of forced sterilization still exists today in the United States.
A 2013 report published by The Center for Investigative Reporting found that doctors in two California state prisons sterilized 148 female inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals. An audit by the State Auditor a year later found that 39 of those inmates were sterilized following “deficiencies in the informed consent process.” In response, a year later Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that bans prisons from sterilizing inmates without their consent.
Even more recently across the country judges have been found to give lighter sentences and offer probation if the defendant agrees to sterilization.
“No Más Bebés” premieres on Independent Lens, Monday, February 1, 2016, 10:00-11:00PM ET (check local listings) on PBS.