The doctors and nurses told Melvina Hernández that the decision was a matter of life or death for her and for her baby ready to be born: She needed an emergency Caesarean section. They also wanted her consent for one other procedure.
The 23-year-old mother-to-be was lying in the maternity ward of Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center four decades ago. She didn’t speak English. She said she couldn’t sign any papers because her husband wasn’t there. The couple planned to have at least two or three children.
“If you don’t sign, you’ll die,” the nurse said, waving a paper printed in English, as Hernández recalls in a new documentary. “Then the nurse grabbed my hand and signed my name.”
The child was born healthy, and Hernández’s life was changed in more ways than one:
“I didn’t know I was sterilized until four years later.”
“No Más Bebés” — “No More Babies” — tells the story of a nearly forgotten battle for reproductive rights that exposed numerous examples of women having their fallopian tubes tied allegedly against their will, or without proper consent, in the Los Angeles hospital in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The women tended to be poor Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico.
Director Renee Tajima-Peña is scheduled to talk about the film after a screening in the AFI Docs Film Series at the Landmark E Street Cinema on Monday at 7 p.m. (AFI is no longer accepting RSVPs to the event.) The film will be broadcast as part of the Independent Lens series on PBS stations starting Feb. 1.
In addition to the mothers, the characters in the documentary include hospital whistle-blower Bernard Rosenfeld, the doctor who smuggled out medical records that helped a young lawyer named Antonia Hernández and her colleagues launch a class-action lawsuit in 1975, Madrigal v. Quilligan. The case made novel use of the recently decided Roe v. Wade. Today Roe connotes abortion, but the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe covered the range of a woman’s reproductive choices. Relying in part on Roe, the lawyers in Los Angeles argued that their clients were being denied their
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