Renee Tajima-Peña’s No Mas Bebés, on the widespread use of coerced sterilisation at LA County Hospital in the 1960s and 1970s, aired last week on PBS in what was perhaps extremely fortuitous timing. Even as audiences were learning about a class-action lawsuit filed by victims of sterilisation, the media were reporting on the growing spread of Zika virus, known to cause congenital anomalies, and the recommendation that people avoid pregnancy until the outbreak is resolved. This affects primarily Latin American women, as the virus is clustered in Central and South America, and it serves as a bitter reminder that the issues brought up in No Mas Bebés persist to this day, though they may change shape and form. Latinas are still denied autonomy and control over their own fertility, in this case via government officials recommending that they not get pregnant for up to two years in some regions.
The striking documentary draws upon archival footage, reams of documents, interviews with various parties including attorneys from both sides in the case, physicians, patients, and journalists who reported on the story as it broke. Tajima-Peña also drew from contemporary cultural, social, and news trends, such as The Population Bomb and its devastating effect on family planning services in America — 40 years after Buck v Bell cemented the notion that sterilising people to prevent the birth of ‘idiots’ and the perpetuation of unclean genetics was legal and perhaps even necessary, America once again turned to widespread ‘family planning’ programmes targeting primarily low-income people, disabled people, and people of colour, often taking the form of coercion and deception to force people to undergo sterilisation. The film is artfully and thoughtfully constructed, exploring the use of mass sterilisation to systematically control reproductive autonomy of Latinas in and around Los Angeles in midcentury America.
Within the larger cultural context of feminist and social justice history, the film is filling a critical role. The white feminism of the era was focused on Roe v Wade and the right to abortions, while Chicana feminists ‘took their claws out,’ as one interviewee put it, to defend the right to control their fertility, to have children, to raise them. As Chicanas fought for a mandatory waiting period for sterilisations — a fight that they won, and one reflected in the waiting period still mandated in California today — white feminists resisted them, highlighting that feminism then and now has deep racial and cultural divides, reflecting an inability to think outside narrow, privileged boxes.
These kinds of cultural documents, drawing upon a generation of voices that is rapidly aging, are of great importance. We need the lessons of our elders to draw upon when contextualising and discussing the history of social movements, and when holding movements accountable for their past and present. The women of No Mas Bebés are quietly confrontational, an indictment of white supremacy in American culture, but also illustrative of of the lack of support white feminists offered Chicanas as they fought for equal rights in America.
Notably, abortion still tends to be an all-consuming issue for the mainstream feminist movement, while many other advocates are concerned with subjects like fertility, being able to raise families, and social supports. No Mas Bebés not so subtly critiqued that by commenting on white feminist attitudes of the era — and it could have drawn direct parallels today if it had chosen to do so, but opted to refrain from clunkiness, as the undertone was perfectly sufficient. It also could have cast a look back onto dark moments in feminist history, like Margaret Sanger’s ardent evangelism for birth control to prevent large families among low-income people and ‘the working class,’ as well as her rhetoric about the ‘feeble’ and the need for a ‘cleaner race.’ The film also briefly touched upon other groups targeted for forcible sterilisation: Black women in the rural South and poor whites in Appalachia. Sadly, it didn’t brush upon the systemic history of sterilising disabled people, or the forcible sterilisations of primarily Latina inmates in the California prison system that persisted well through the 2000s.
This film takes place within a larger social context, too. White feminism didn’t just benefit from Roe v Wade and the fight for abortion rights. It also benefited tremendously from the Pill, which was tested in unethical conditions in Puerto Rico at very high doses on patients who were not able to exercise informed consent. White feminists achieved their sexual liberation on the backs and bodies of Puerto Ricans who were used as subjects of scientific experimentation, with some losing their fertility for life and experiencing serious complications as a result of the high doses used during testing. Three patients died, and none were notified that they were participating in a clinical trial of an experimental drug. To say that these patients ‘volunteered,’ as literature often describes it, is a gross mischaracterisation of the situation.
Such medical experimentation wasn’t limited to Latina communities, and it took place on US soil as well — the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is perhaps the most notable example, while HeLa cells became famous even though their ‘donor’ had no idea her tissues were being used in medical research. Well into the 1970s, the United States also performed medical research on institutionalised disabled people and prison inmates, who weren’t capable of objecting or participating in informed consent.
With forcible sterilisation a part of the landscape and recent history for the Latina community, the Zika-related pregnancy ‘cautions’ come with a bitter sting. In the 1960s and 1970s, the government exerted control over patients by providing vast amounts of funding for family planning programmes that effectively bordered on the eugenic, while in the 2010s, governments order low-income Latin American patients to avoid pregnancy for fear that their infants might develop a congenital disability.
Both measures, patients and the public are assured, are ‘for their own good.’ In both instances, though, controlling Latina fertility is clearly about making the world more comfortable for the white community. In the 1960s and 1970s, whites feared the dreaded ‘population bomb’ and manufactured the spectre of massive families taking over the world (a harbinger of racist rhetoric from whites terrified of the minority-majority state of the US population). Today, whites want to approach a public health epidemic of serious proportions with the simplistic solution of telling people not to get pregnant, suggesting that Latinas should put their lives on hold for the convenience of public health officials, rather than running the risk of having disabled children who may need some social supports to thrive.
The timely placement of No Mas Bebés on the PBS schedule might have been an accident, but the systemic patterns it documents definitely aren’t. Tackling the issue of attacks on fertility should be a critical component of all reproductive justice movements.