LA Film Fest Review: No Mas Bebes, by David Bax
In most discussions or arguments, comparing your opponent to the Nazis is a sort of nuclear option that tends to obliterate the entire substance of both sides. Early in Renee Tajima-Peña’s No Más Bebés, that option is invoked. What’s truly shocking and infuriating is that the film goes on make a damn good case in support of the comparison, even though it is impossible to find many human architects on whom to pin it.
No Más Bebés recounts the story of a 1970s lawsuit and the actions that inspired it. For years, women, many of them Latina, would go to the Los Angeles County USC hospital to give birth and, without realizing it, would leave having been sterilized. Technically, in every case, the women had given signed consent but many of them didn’t speak English and many of them were presented with the option while in the middle of labor. So some of these women didn’t realize what they had signed and some of them didn’t realize what was done to them until years later, when the lawyer pressing the case brought them their medical records. The first time a chyron comes up with a woman’s name followed by the words, “Sterilized, Age 23,” you will likely gasp in outrage the same way the folks in my theater did, including myself. And you’ll wonder, aside from the grotesque methods these doctors employed, why was this done at all? Despite Tajima-Peña’s excellently researched and edited documentary, the answer to that remains maddeningly out of focus.
Tajima-Peña’s years of non-fiction filmmaking experience show both in the quality of footage she obtains (newscasts detailing the trial; Chicano rights protests, etc.) and also in the economy and expertise with which she arranges and presents her information and interviews. No Más Bebés is a story involving many women, a years-long lawsuit and the decades of fallout since, yet the director crams it all into a lean, fierce 79 minutes.
It would be an easier, if less honest, story to swallow if the film allowed us a single villain. It gives us heroes in these women who endured unconscionable violations and then, in some cases, were shamed by their families and even their husbands, some of whom turned to violence and baseless accusations of guilt, labeling their own wives mujeres de le calle who sought the company of other men without consequence. There’s even a heroic doctor, the resident who blew the whistle on the practice and was suspected of taking bribes to do so by his peers who could see no other reason for his supposed betrayal. But villains are hard to pin down because none of the doctors interviewed believe they did anything wrong. And, what’s more, we can see how much they believe it. After all, nothing they did was illegal. And they refuse to see themselves as racists implementing an insidious form of genocide. The truth is, there was no policy in place targeting Latina women. There was no (proven, at least) meeting where these women were designated as targets. This was a situation where fears of overpopulation met ingrained, institutionalized racism and classism.
That racism is apparent even among those who mean well. The argument that Latino culture is more focused on family and procreation than the culture of white America ends up being the exact thing that gets the doctors off the hook. After all, how could they have known? But sterilization – the decision not to have any further children – is not a cultural one. It’s the decision of the woman who owns the tubes being tied, no matter her heritage. Unless a woman’s immediate health is in danger, there’s no reason for a doctor to discuss sterilization, even if she’s already had six children or a hundred children. That’s a moral judgment, not a medical one. Hopefully, a film like No Más Bebés will help people to see how easily – and with what devastating results – morality and prejudice can poison lives.