Out of Sight: Immigrant Women and Their Reproductive Rights

Image courtesy of Alva Nelms, No Más Bebes Press Kit

“It’s too much pain!” Maria Hurtado yelled as she was in labor at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. Her doctors offered her a remedy for the pain, an injection that would quickly eliminate any discomfort. But first, she had to sign a paper.

Later, Maria Hurtado would find out the paper she signed would do more than simply numb her pain, but rather, would give her doctors permission to perform a tubal ligation on her. This surgery would permanently tie her fallopian tubes, leading to sterilization.

In a hectic situation and with unbearable pain, Hurtado had not realized she signed away her choice to ever conceive again. 

Hurtado’s story, however, is not unique.

From the 1960s through the mid 70s, many immigrant Latinas entered the Los Angeles County-USC Medical center to give birth, but instead were in many ways coerced into signing a piece of paper that would lead to unwanted sterilizations. This was all part of the government’s policy to prevent over-population through various methods outlined in the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970.  Upon proposing the Act, which was passed by Congress in 1970, Nixon asked for a “reorganization of family planning.” In addition, Congress would provide the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare with  “broader and more precise legislative authority and a clearer source of financial support,” allowing hospitals to receive government aid when they would perform sterilizations.  Thus, hospitals carried an incentive to perform sterilization, as it would warrant financial aid.

The stories of these women are shared in the documentary, No Más Bebés (No More Babies), directed by Renee Tajima Pena and produced by Virginia Espino. Premiering in the summer of 2015, the documentary exposes the sterilization of Maria Hurtado, and many other immigrant Latinas whose reproductive choices were taken away from them.

The documentary analyzes the harsh realities the women faced in the wake of their unwanted sterilization, including their later pursuit for justice in the 1975 lawsuit Madrigal v. Quilligan. The interviews of the people who were sterilized and the hospital’s medical staff shine a light on the women’s struggles.  Their voices were silenced, leaving them unable to determine their reproductive rights.

Today, however, the struggle towards controlling their own reproductive health still lingers for many immigrant Latinas.

As Planned Parenthood remains in the headlines, proving itself an inspirational force towards sculpting our political climate, the voice of undocumented Latinas has remained on the sidelines. Their ability to obtain access to reproductive healthcare has been concealed from the mainstream media and many mainstream feminist movements.

Moreover, as many states across the country continue to defund Planned Parenthood, access to reproductive healthcare remains particularly difficult for undocumented Latinas. The issue concerning the government’s role in the funding of Planned Parenthood has been debated on the main stage in recent presidential debates. However, what is often ignored are the effects the defunding of Planned Parenthood has on the lives of undocumented Latinas. Due to a lack of funds, the aid and support Planned Parenthood would usually provide can no longer extend to many immigrant women.

While Planned Parenthood abides by its mission to grant all women access to reproductive care, regardless of whether they are enrolled in health care, many states have already voted to defund the clinic. Recently, Ohio followed in the footsteps of other states, such as Texas, as presidential hopeful and Ohio governor John Kasich supported ending the government’s contribution to the clinic’s funding.

Without funds, many clinics are destined to close. Whereas California has 112 Planned Parenthood centers, Texas has only 34. Texas also has more than 4 million immigrants. Given the shortage, many immigrant women in states like Texas must travel significantly to receive reproductive care. Being undocumented warrants a hesitance and resistance to travel for fear of being stopped by police and the always-present terror of deportation.

While a lack of Planned Parenthood clinics in operation affects all women, the magnitude of this issue is particularly felt by undocumented Latinas who must not only meet the inconvenience of travel, but the fear that comes along with it.

These worries, however, are not often shared by mainstream feminist movements nor focused on by policy makers. The experiences of this societal sector are frequently alienated.

Like Maria Hurtado and many others who were sterilized against their will, the voices of immigrant women are ignored and their reproductive rights taken away.  As access to reproductive healthcare is only distanced through a continued defunding of Planned Parenthood, the ability for immigrant women to define their reproductive rights dwindles.

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