Renee Tajima-Peña discusses her interdisciplinary Emmy-nominated documentary, No Más Bebés, and shares what she learned while helping tell the story of women involved in the little-known reproductive justice case, Madrigal v. Quiligan.
No Más Bebés tells the story of Latinas who were sterilized shortly after giving birth at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the 1970s. What inspired you to make this documentary?
I came of age during the whole Roe v. Wade debate over women’s rights to abortion, but I never really imagined that their right to bear a child would be at risk. I think a lot of middle-class women don’t think of that. To me, this film asserts the idea that women should not only have the right to terminate a pregnancy, but to have and raise a child with dignity. It's really an untold story of women’s right to freedom.
Producer Virginia Espino and I are neighbors and we have boys the same age. When our kids were really young she told me about the Madrigal v. Quiligan case. As a new mother having gone through that profound experience of pregnancy and childbearing, I was affected all the more.
Women, activists, and mothers were arguing back then that women’s reproductive freedom also entailed the right to make their own decisions about childbearing. That’s something I think mainstream feminism only recently learned to embrace. The women in the film were highly marginalized due to their immigration status and their poverty level; so it’s not a question of choice, it’s a question of reproductive justice.
The controversial subject matter of No Más Bebés leads to some emotional interviews. What challenges arose from covering such a sensitive topic?
The mothers were very reluctant to be on camera. I think there was so much trauma from what happened to them. They’re trying to move on with their lives but Virginia in particular really spent a lot of time getting to know the families.
Many of the women asked their children if they should get involved in the film. For the most part, the children had no idea, even after so many decades, what happened to their mothers. They knew there were no more babies in the family, and that something terrible had happened in the past. So for the first time, it all made sense to them. And they were so proud that their mothers had stood up to all these powerful men and institutions in a landmark case. They wanted their moms to tell their stories.
What do you think your responsibilities as a filmmaker were in addressing the ethical questions brought up by this film?
What interested me was that the doctors and the mothers had such different perspectives of what happened in the maternity ward. There’s a real disconnect that speaks to bigger questions. I’m never interested in looking for villains in my films, even though that’s how audiences often like to see things. I wanted to know what was going on in America that made the sterilizations possible—the fear of over-population and how that intersected with attitudes towards immigrants and towards poor people, working people, people of color. On the one hand, public hospitals like LA county were providing really beneficial family planning programs and contraception to women who wouldn’t have access otherwise. On the other hand, women were being sterilized their consent all over the US, and in developing countries. The common denominator is it was happening to the poor, and mostly people of color. At LA county, was it a problem of miscommunication? The “assembly line” nature of labor and delivery? Or were they sterilizing the “undesirables?”
As an academic who uses documentaries in classrooms as a teaching tool, how does this film contribute to education?
Hopefully people can use the film to sort through the intersection of themes--reproductive justice, immigration, race, culture, gender, class, citizenship, activism and the law, and look at the case through an interdisciplinary lens, looking at how these things happen and why.
What were the most important lessons you took away from making No Más Bebés?
One is that the mothers weren’t victims. Yes, they were marginalized, they couldn’t speak English, and they were immigrants—working-class and poor women—and this was when Los Angeles was very much run by a white male status quo. Despite that, the mothers stood up for justice and they never gave up.
The second lesson is how we understand reproductive freedom. Reproductive justice means not only having the right to chose to not have a child, but also the right to bear a child and raise that child with dignity. Sounds very simple, but it took a while for it to sink in. When I was coming of age around the time of the Madrigal v. Quilligan case, the narrative around reproductive freedom was driven by white, middle class women.
Mainstream feminism focused on abortion rights, and I think there was a blindness to the realities that other women faced. For women of color, immigrant women, and poor women, it’s also been a question of access to prenatal health care, having a healthy pregnancy, bearing a child, and the means to raise that child.
Were there any surprising moments that took the film in a different direction?
Probably revisiting the hospital. Everything inside was still the same as it was back then—as if it were frozen in time. We went with Maria Hurtado, who is a very strong, feisty, and matter-of-fact kind of woman. But when she stepped back in that delivery ward, she was taken aback, and her emotions brought on by those memories were very real and raw.
How did it feel to hear these women tell their stories?
It hit me in the gut. Having grown up in a three-generation home with my grandparents, who were immigrants, and knowing what children meant to my own family. When we were filming in the plaintiff’s homes, I’d see the pictures on the wall, and kids and grandkids were always around. My mom and aunts were told by their doctors to have hysterectomies after their 3rd or 4th child. There was no medical reason for it, just this attitude “ok time to have your hysterectomy.” Thankfully my mom refused, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.