MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to another harrowing story about fertility, this one from the 1960s and '70s Los Angeles. The first moments after the birth of a child are often the most intense of a mother's life. There's joy, but there can also be pain, exhaustion and confusion. It was in this vulnerable time that 10 women in Los Angeles say hospital officials forced or deceived them into getting sterilized, and they sued them for it. The new documentary "No Mas Bebes" examines their story. It premieres tomorrow night on PBS. From NPR's Code Switch team, Shereen Marisol Meraji has more.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: After an emergency C-section at LA County Hospital, Consuelo Hermosillo got some unexpected news.
CONSUELO HERMOSILLO: The doctor walked in and said everything went fine. And I said, what am I going to use? Am I going to use birth control? He goes no, you don't need anything. We cut your tubes. And I said why? He goes well, you signed for it. I said, me?
MERAJI: In "No Mas Bebes," Hermosillo recalls the doctor's visit that took place after she gave birth to her third child. She was in her early 20s, and it was September of 1973. Two years later, Hermosillo took part in a class-action lawsuit with nine other women who all claimed they were sterilized without their informed consent at LA County Hospital. All 10 plaintiffs were Mexican immigrants and poor or working-class, and they had similar stories. They had emergency C-sections, were given medication for excruciating labor pain and they say they couldn't remember signing the consent form, they were confused about what they were signing or they were coerced into signing. Most spoke very little English.
MELVINA HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
MERAJI: At 23 years old, Melvina Hernandez was rushed into a C-section at LA County Hospital because her baby was breech. She says a nurse told her in English that she needed to sign this paper now. Hernandez wanted to wait for her husband, but the nurse told her if she didn't sign, they couldn't operate and she'd die.
HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
MERAJI: Hernandez says the nurse grabbed her hand and signed the paper for her. Four years later, she found out it was for a tubal ligation. Consuelo Hermosillo says she's spent years trying to understand why this happened to them.
HERMOSILLO: Were they doing it for not supporting these kids in the future, or were they getting money at the hospital for doing more sterilization? I always kept those questions in me. I never get those answers.
MERAJI: Two women set out to find those answers in "No Mas Bebes."
RENEE TAJIMA-PENA: I'm Renee Tajima-Pena, filmmaker and the director and co-producer of the film.
VIRGINIA ESPINO: I'm Virginia Espino. I'm a historian on and a co-producer of the film.
MERAJI: Espino and Tajima-Pena are LA natives, neighbors, longtime friends and colleagues. Espino learned about the sterilizations in graduate school studying Chicana history.
ESPINO: I grew up in northeast Los Angeles, very close to the LA County Hospital. So I was really shocked to hear that women were being sterilized there in the 1970s, a time when I was coming of age.
MERAJI: So horrified by the story, she devoted her studies to tracing the history behind it and would talk about it with Tajima-Pena when they were both new moms.
TAJIMA-PENA: I was in baby bliss, and I thought oh, this so profound. And it's all those cliches you think about motherhood. And she told me about these women, you know, who were sterilized without their consent, against their will. And I was floored.
MERAJI: About a decade after those initial conversations, the two started production on "No Mas Bebes." That meant finding the plaintiffs and defendants, all of whom hadn't spoken about the case publicly in 35 years. Tajima-Pena said those willing to talk - both the women who were sterilized and the doctors who performed the sterilizations - all men - echoed their court testimony. The women still claim they never gave informed consent. And the doctors, like Jerry Neuman, still maintained their innocence.
JERRY NEUMAN: I knew personally I had not done anything. I could not for the life of me think of any of my colleagues who would have deliberately done this. We busted our - in order to provide care for a lot of people and got sued for it.
TAJIMA-PENA: The easiest thing to do is make a film about the good guys and the bad guys, the heroes and the villains.
MERAJI: Tajima-Pena says that "No Mas Bebes" goes beyond that simple narrative. She says the answers to plaintiff Consuelo Hermosillo's questions are complicated. In 1970, Congress allocated millions for family planning. The money went to training, contraceptives and sterilizations. At the same time, mainstream white feminists were calling for stabilization on-demand while another popular movement, the zero population movement, supported sterilization as a way to combat overpopulation, which they claimed was destroying the planet. And that's not all.
TAJIMA-PENA: You have attitudes about immigrants, hostility towards immigrants, this fear that poor women and working-class women are going to be having children and going on welfare. You had these cultural differences. You have all these things going on. And as a filmmaker, you kind of have to dig deeper beneath the surface and kind of look at those complexities.
MERAJI: For co-producer and historian Espino, it was important to provide as much historical context as possible.
ESPINO: So that everybody's thinking critically about it and coming to their own conclusions about what does that really mean when you talk about reproductive justice, reproductive rights, reproductive choice?
MERAJI: Espino says we talk a lot about the choice not to have kids, but what about the choice to have them? Consuelo Hermosillo says that decision was taken away from her.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "NO MAS BEBES")
HERMOSILLO: (Singing in Spanish).
MERAJI: In one of the film's final scenes, Hermosillo is giving her baby granddaughter a bottle and reflecting on her hopes for the future.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "NO MAS BEBES")
HERMOSILLO: I want her to have liberty on doing what she wants, going to school wherever she wants, decides how many kids she wants.
MERAJI: The filmmakers say "No Mas Bebes" documents a history that continues to repeat itself. They point to the nearly 150 women sterilized in California prisons between 2006 and 2010 as a recent example. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.
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