Waiting for an emergency cesarean section, Consuelo Hermosillo sat in pain on a gurney in the hallway of Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. At 23, Hermosillo was having her third child with her husband. But before she could be seen by the doctor, she was asked to sign papers consenting to sterilization.
“You better sign those papers or your baby is going to die,” a woman told her in Spanish, recalled Hermosillo, a native of Veracruz, Mexico. “As soon as you sign, they’ll take you in.”
Hermosillo didn’t want to sign. She was too young and wanted to speak with her husband first. Leaving the hospital, however, she carried the last child she would ever be able to conceive.
“I don’t remember signing the consent form,” said Hermosillo, now 66. “They decided for me.”
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In 1975 she was one of about 10 women who filed Madrigal vs. Quilligan, a class-action lawsuit against L.A. County doctors, the state and the federal government for sterilizing them without consent. They hoped that the case would prevent the same from happening to other women. They lost in court, but 40 years later, in the documentary “No Más Bebés” (“No More Babies”) premiering Sunday at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the women revisit their landmark legal battle.
Throughout the 1900s, thousands of poor women in at least 30 states were unknowingly sterilized after giving birth as part of a federally funded program aimed at population control. In California, which accounted for a third of the sterilizations, many of these women were Spanish-speaking immigrants. Before they could enter the delivery room, they were forced to sign papers, written in English, consenting to the cutting of their fallopian tubes. Most did not know they were unable to bear children until many years later.
When director Renee Tajima-Peña first heard the story, she was appalled. Aware of the sterilization of women in Puerto Rico, as chronicled in the 1982 documentary “La Operación,” she never thought that it would have happened in this country, let alone so close to her childhood home in Los Angeles.
Tajima-Peña said she makes films when something makes her mad. And this really made her mad.
“I thought that these mothers had a right to be heard,” she said.
The director learned of Madrigal vs. Quilligan, one of the first cases in which women used the Roe vs. Wade precedent to support their right to bear children, from her neighbor Virginia Espino, and an elementary school teacher turned historian whose dissertation at Arizona State University centered on the “outrageous and absurd victimization of these and countless other women.”
“No Más Bebés” is the realization of her goal as a historian to “bring traditional academic history to wider, more public audiences,” she said.
But putting the documentary together — a six-year process — wasn’t easy. Not only was the pair using old court documents to attempt to find the women, but many of the mothers preferred to forget what had happened to them.
“We were bringing up this history that they had not shared even with their own children,” Espino said. “It took several years building trust and convincing them that what we were doing was an important part of that same struggle they had started with their lawsuit.”
The documentary features interviews with five of the original complainants; their lawyer, Antonia Hernandez; and Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld, who as a medical student in residence at County-USC shared the confidential hospital records with Hernandez. Four of the defendant doctors also are interviewed.
Espino and Tajima-Peña hope the film encourages people to evaluate reproductive rights through a new lens.
“All the gains we’ve made since the 1970s, we seem to be losing,” Tajima-Peña said. “What’s interesting about these women is they were talking about the right to bear a child in a way nobody was thinking about in the last 40 years.”
As reproductive rights policies once again become hot topics of debate, she offers a reminder that “on the other end of all policy is a person.”
Hermosillo was once one of those people, on the end of a policy that she said took away her control of her body. Although public pressure from her case prompted the federal government to make consent forms in Spanish and English and propelled the state to mandate bilingual counselors at county hospitals, since she walked out of the courthouse in 1978 on the losing end, Hermosillo had kept to herself the secret of her sterilization.
When she brings her family to the premiere, she will keep in mind the words of her son after he learned her story in a Chicano studies class at Santa Barbara College: “Don’t let go of something that you should have the world know what happened.”
‘No Más Bebés’
Where: Regal Cinemas L.A. Live, 1000 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 2:15 p.m. Sunday and 6:10 p.m. Tuesday