Renee Tajima-Peña on the Heartwrenching Sterilization Lawsuit That Inspired ‘No Mas Bebes’

“I make films when something pisses me off,” Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña told Remezcla during an interview about her new documentary No más bebés (No More Babies). “This story really pissed me off.”

The story Tajima-Peña is talking about and the one she explored in No More Babies is the class-action lawsuit filed by 10 Latina immigrants in 1975, which accused Los Angeles County doctors of performing sterilization surgery on each of them without their consent or while under duress. In the film, Tajima-Peña revisits the case 40 years later and talks to some of the women who were involved. She also sits down with the named defendant in the case, Dr. James Quilligan, the doctor responsible for the obstetricians who carried out the procedures.

Tajima-Peña learned about the case, which ultimately ruled in favor of the LA County doctors, from her neighbor and one of the film’s producers, Virginia Espino, who had written a dissertation on the case. It immediately spoke to her as a mother.

“The case was really forgotten for decades after the trial was over,” said Tajima-Peña, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1987 for her documentary film Who Killed Vincent Chin? “Nobody talked to the mothers for many, many years. It was swept under the rug.”

“This was like a border checkpoint in the maternity ward for unborn brown babies.”

What compelled Tajima-Peña the most about the case were the “gray areas.” Some people believe the surgeries performed on these women occurred because of their socioeconomic and immigrant status and the idea that this population had to be controlled. Tajima-Peña wasn’t interested in making this a film about a hero vs. a villain. She wanted to understand how a story like this fit into the fabric of our society back in the 70s and how that has or has not changed in the last four decades.

“For women, abortion rights are always vulnerable, but I don’t think any of those women thought having the right to have a child was something they had to worry about,” she said. “This was like a border checkpoint in the maternity ward for unborn brown babies.”

Director Renee Tajima-Peña and Producer Virginia Espino of ‘No más bebés’
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Making the film was not an easy task for Tajima-Peña and Espino. Some of the women did not want to speak about the situation after all these years. Some had never told their children what happened to them as younger women.

“Nobody had talked to them in so long,” Tajima-Peña said. “They put it behind them and moved on. In some cases, the children only knew that they were the last child and that their mom didn’t have any more after that. They never knew why.”

“There are cases across the country like this.”

Tajima-Peña wants audiences to know that while this case happened 40 years ago, these types of injustices are still taking place today. Last year, Governor Jerry Brown of California banned the sterilization of female inmates when it was found that 39 of them were sterilized without proper consent between 2005 and 2011.

“There are cases across the country like this,” Tajima-Peña said before giving another example of Tennessee prosecutors who have recently used sterilization as a bargaining chip in the courtroom. “There are still questions about immigrants’ rights to reproductive healthcare and reproductive justice. I’m interested in figuring out what we all have to do to make positive changes.”

No más bebés plays on September 23 and October 1 in Los Angeles during the 2015 Ambulante California film festival.