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Finding Reproductive Justice: “No Más Bebés” & The Limitations Of “Pro-Choice”

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September 28, 2023

I’m proud to be a Latina, but I wasn’t always. Growing up in a predominantly white community in Georgia, my family and I were often targets of incredibly ignorant and hurtful microaggressions. I’ve lost count of how many times someone has made  assumptions about how my parents arrived to the United States, or where I’m really from. Even as a kid, I was hyper-aware of how different I looked from my white peers and begged my parents to speak to me in English in front of my friends. 

The microaggressions I experienced as a child, questioning my belonging and citizenship, were not just incidents of routine childhood teasing, but were a part of a larger system of xenophobia. These seemingly innocuous and juvenile expressions of contempt can better be understood within the larger social and cultural context of Georgia. Though there’s a growing number of Latines in Georgia, Latines still only make up 10%  of the state population, and in some areas like my hometown, that can mean being the only Latine person around. Despite the relatively small number of Latines within the state, Georgia has one of the largest number of ICE detainees, many whom I imagine resemble my family and me. It’s no wonder I felt hyper-aware of my background, appearance, language, and name growing up. I was being fed the message that my rightful “place” was not within the community, but behind bars. 

If the large-scale, state-sanctioned caging didn’t tell us enough about what the U.S. and Georgia specifically thinks about Latine immigrants, their subsequent treatment within these facilities reveals much more. Within the past three years, several Georgia ICE detention centers were accused of “barbaric” conditions, with one even terminating its ICE contract for forced detainee sterilizations. While the ICE mission statement claims to be primarily concerned with “securing [the] nation’s borders” and “detecting and dismantling transnational criminal networks,” their sterilization efforts indicate a eugenic investment in removing so-called “undesirables” from the U.S. population. 

To be fair, these are observations I can make now with my present knowledge, but growing up, things were much different. As a student in the Georgia public school system, I shoved down my identity and seldom had the opportunity to learn about my history. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I was finally given the space to make sense of my identity and environment in college. In a Women’s Studies course, I was assigned the documentary “No Más Bebés,” a film about the forced sterilizations of hundreds of Latinas in Los Angeles during the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time, I knew very little about reproductive rights issues, other than what I had been told by adults in my life— that sex is for marriage, and abortion is murder. Despite those heavy influences, I considered myself “pro-choice,” took my mail-ordered birth control pills, and didn’t think much else of these things until I watched the film.

My entire worldview began to change as I started engaging with the documentary. “No Más Bebés” opens with three Latinas walking through an abandoned maternity ward, which they identify as the former Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center; the site of hundreds of forced sterilizations against Latina women. One of the women, María Hurtado, recalls her experience giving birth there, sharing: [t]hey looked at me, they must’ve thought, ‘this woman has so many kids, we’ll just sew her up, so she won’t know that we did the operation.’’’ María reminds me of my Abuelita, a similarly petite, Spanish-speaking older woman with olive skin, bobbed hair, and a call to motherhood. But there’s a massive difference between the two: My Abuelita had twelve children, while María’s dream of a large family was cut short.

The forced sterilizations at LA County-USC occurred during a time when overpopulation fears were brewing, and when welfare had shifted from serving primarily white, widowed women to including people of color. State-funded hospitals, such as LA County-USC, received grants to promote “family planning,” even through coercion, in efforts to address overpopulation and save taxpayer welfare funds. Serving a primarily Spanish-speaking population, many women went to LA County-USC to have emergency cesarean sections, and were asked to fill out English sterilization consent forms while in labor, on the operating table, or without proper translation services. As a result, hundreds of women went home sterilized, many of whom were unaware for years. During the film, I thought of my Mamá, who often told me that her only dream in life was to become a mother. It didn’t come true for her until she was 34, a decade after most of the women in the film were sterilized. What would it have meant for her if someone robbed her of that dream? 

Watching “No Más Bebés” also changed much of what I knew about the “pro-choice” ideology, which I came to realize wasn’t as progressive or inclusive as I’d imagined. In the film, Chicano Rights activists remember their fight for mandatory sterilization waiting periods after the injustices at LA County-USC, opposing white feminists who advocated for on-demand sterilization. Operating under the principles of having the “right to choose,” the mainstream reproductive rights movement overlooked that hundreds of Latines didn’t have a choice at all. 

Reproductive “choice” still doesn’t exist for many people. Forced sterilization remains legal in 31 states, and has occurred several times throughout the 21st century. For example, hundreds of people incarcerated in California were forcibly sterilized between 2006-2010, and at least 57 people detained at an ICE detention center in Georgia had unnecessary gynecological surgeries, including hysterectomies, performed on them while detained. While there’s truth to reproductive “choice” being limited by restrictive abortion laws, poor Black and Brown people have had their reproductive choices dictated for them long before Roe fell. If we are to truly support people’s right to have an abortion, we must also be willing to understand the full history of reproductive injustice, including the history of forced sterilizations.Partly thanks to “No Más Bebés,” I’ve learned that what I’m really an advocate for is Reproductive Justice (RJ). Reproductive Justice, as defined by the Atlanta-based organization SisterSong, holds that everyone should have the right to have children, not have children, and to raise their children in safe and sustainable communities. While the mainstream reproductive rights movement has historically, and into the present emphasized the right not to have children – emphasizing birth control and abortion, we must remember the eugenic history endured by women of color, who were deprived of the right to have children. It’s through this remembrance that we can hold space for all forms of reproductive injustice, and recognize the systems that facilitate these injustices.

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