A few days ago I went to the Albuquerque Peace and Justice Center for a screening of “No Más Bebés“. It was a heartbreaking documentary that sheds light on the forced sterilization of minority women in the late 60s and early 70s. The film focused on a group of 10 Hispanic women in the Los Angeles area who become part of a lawsuit years later. Many of these women signed a consent to a tubal ligation(aka getting your “tubes tied”) at the last moment during child birth. It was sometimes coupled with a consent for a C-section, and both forms at that time were only in English. There are endless stories of women having no idea what they signed, being told they would die if they didn’t sign, not remembering signing, and in at least one case a nurse grabbed a woman’s hand and forced her to sign.
One of the things that stood out to me the most was the doctors they had in the film. They interviewed several of the doctors they were sued and they also had the doctor that was the head of the obstetrics unit that oversaw the sued doctors. Even years later, after many policies were changed in direct response to the lawsuit, after hospitals mandated forms in Spanish, after the practice of pressure these operations in the final moments of childbirth fell away, they think they did nothing wrong. It truly seemed like they think neither they nor there peers were doing anything wrong. These practices were a response to a nationwide scare about overpopulation, mainly spurred by the bestselling book “The Population Bomb”.The doctors actually thought they were doing good by targeting minorities they saw as being likely to have lots of children. What is scary to me is that these highly educated individuals 40+ year later have not budged on their stance at all. It is not as if the doctors sat by idling and watched horrible things happen, they thought and still think they did a great thing for humanity. At the beginning of the film, I imagined an evil racist doctor council somewhere passing down edicts to sterilize minorities, but it was nothing that nearly that nefarious. It seems to a combo of underlying fear of overpopulation and a fear/lack of understanding of other cultures and classes; it seems to have almost emerged organically from existing power structures and class dynamics. To me, that ideas like this can come into existence and become fairly widespread so quickly is way more terrifying than an evil plan. It seems so nebulous and hard to pin down and therefore hard to combat. There was one main doctor who wrote and wrote and sought out someone to listen to him blow the whistle. Without his persistence, who knows how much longer this practice would have continued. He had to fight to even get anyone to see what was happening.
After the film, there was a panel of Native American women who are all involved in reproductive rights and women’s health. The panel talked about the government admitting that it sterilized over 3000 women without their knowledge in the early 1970s. This was done through the Indian Health Service and they “singled out full-blooded Indian women for sterilization procedures.” I sat quietly and listened to a great discussion about these issues specifically related to local indigenous women. They had endless great points. They want healthcare providers that have knowledge of their culture and specifically women’s bodies in the context of that culture. They want a healthcare provider that sees them as an individual and who doesn’t see all Native Americans as part of the exact same Indian culture. After the powerful and sad film, it was refreshing to hear these incredibly powerful women doing positive things in the area.
Last night, after I wrote this, I read a quote in “The New Jim Crow” that perfectly and succinctly sums up: “Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent), when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.”