Fighting for reproductive rights has been a long-time struggle but when it comes to doctors we’re taught to inherently trust them and focus on fighting dangerous policies instead. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, several Mexican-American women trusted a doctor in Los Angeles to help through their pregnancies and found themselves involuntarily sterilized instead. When Long Beach, California native and director/cinematographer Kathryn Boyd-Batstone first learned about the Madrigal Ten —a group of Mexican-American women who underwent forced sterilization — she was surprised to learn fellow California natives weren’t familiar with that part of the state’s history. She watched the PBS documentary, No Más Bebés (2016) while working in San Antonio and was inspired by the women to work on For Rosa, a short she wrote and directed that’s meant to shed more light on this little-known moment in history.
The Madrigal Ten were a group of Chicanas who alleged that they had been coerced into getting their tubes tied, some while giving birth at the Los Angeles County – USC Medical Center (formerly the LA County General Hospital) during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of the women did not speak English and many were not counseled about what they were signing when asked by nurses to sign some paperwork.
“The main feeling that stuck with me after watching the documentary No Más Bebés was how much strength it must have taken these women to face someone who tried to take their identity and demand accountability. As women, especially Latina women, I don’t think many stories show us how to do this, so it was important to me to one honor the Madrigal Ten’s bravery, but two, show young girls what it looks like to stand up and fight for your rights,” Boyd-Batstone tells HipLatina.
For Rosa, released earlier this year and steaming on HBO, tells the story of Eva, a fictional mother played by Xicana actress Melinna Bobadilla, as she learns of her sterilization and joins the nine other women in the lawsuit against the hospital. In the film we see Eva in the throes of labor pains calling for her husband in Spanish and she’s then asked to sign paperwork. This scene reflects what actually happened to Dolores Madrigal, who claimed the doctors pressured her into signing sterilization consent forms while she was in labor. Real-life whistleblower Dr. Bernard Rosenfield exposed Dr. Edward J. Quilligan’s malpractice which brought the case to court in 1978 for Madrigal v. Quilligan. They alleged Quilligan targeted low-income minority women working under the belief of Eugenics, which is rooted in white supremacy, where BIPOC and people with disabilities were targeted.
Dr. Rosenfield joined forces with lawyers Antonia Hernandez and Charles Navarette who collaborated with Comisión Feminil, a feminist organization led by Gloria Molina for the landmark 1975 civil rights lawsuit. For Madrigal v. Quilligan, the Madrigal’s team used the Supreme Court’s decision with Roe v. Wade to show that women reserve reproductive rights.
Boyd-Batstone spent months researching and interviewing people who grew up in 1970s East LA, reading through the transcripts of the Madrigal vs. Quilligan court case. She also hosted community read throughs with Latinx mothers to ensure authenticity. She found that it wasn’t until Hernandez filed the lawsuit that medical forms were translated to Spanish in an appropriate reading level to allow for comprehension of the materials. She shares that the few nurses that did speak Spanish at a high school reading level tried translating the forms and used “atadura tubos” as a translation for Bilateral Tubal Ligation (BTL). The process actually involves cutting or removing parts of the fallopian tubes versus the idea of “tying” which implies they can be untied.
While Eva is a fictional character, the reality of the story weighed heavily on Bobadilla, who calls it a “bittersweet labor of love.” “Though I was honored to breathe life into the lead character of Eva, I had to emotionally travel to some very heavy, painfully dark places in order to bring truth to the depth of suffering she must have endured,” she tells HipLatina. “There was a sense of responsibility I felt to make sure that I was humanizing and honoring the women who survived such a heinous physical violation as being forcibly sterilized.”
Bobadilla, whose previous credits include Orange is the New Black and Gentefied, was familiar with the Madrigal 10 and also cited the PBS doc as key source material. Being a part of this indie film is a point of pride for her and also because, as far she knows, this is the first scripted project about the Madrigal 10. With an all-Latinx cast it’s a project that elevates Latinx representation but Bobadilla believes the reason the film is so powerful is because they were “dedicated to being rooted in specificity and authenticity in bringing this history to life.”
The film is centered on the women who were affected but it also notes that federal court under Judge Jesse W. Curtis ruled in favor of the hospital, attributing the sterilizations to miscommunication and language barriers. Despite the loss, as a result of the case the State of California revoked their sterilization law in 1979, which had enabled over 20,000 unauthorized sterilization operations to occur.
Earlier this month the Associated Press reported that the state is set to approve reparation upwards of $25,000 to some of the thousands of victims of forced sterilizations that started in 1909, including many who were imprisoned. Only a few hundred victims are still alive and AP reported only direct victims are eligible for payments, estimating about 25 percent of the eligible victims will apply for reparations. The publication also reported that more than 200 women were sterilized at the LA-USC Medical Center between 1968 and 1974 (which includes the Madrigal 10) and though the hospital apologized in 2018, the women are currently not eligible for reparations.
“My hope is that by creating a fictional depiction inspired by the Madrigal 10, it will help stop the erasure of this story and help others learn about it as well. We shouldn’t be allowed to forget that at age 22, 23, Latina women’s fertility was unjustly taken away from them,” Boyd-Batstone shares.
They’re currently seeking financiers to turn it into a feature film after critical acclaim for the short and its streaming success on HBO Max. Bobadilla also hopes that it not only raises awareness of the Madrigal 10 but the continued attacks on women’s reproductive rights in the U.S. citing cases like that of whistleblower Dawn Wooten who revealed that several women at Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia received forced hysterectomies.
“It’s been over 40 years now and yet we still live in a time where decisions about women’s bodies are not their own. Now more than ever we need stories that remind us not to repeat history, but to learn and change,” Boyd-Batstone states. “My hope is that this film brings understanding to the pain a woman experiences when choices about her body are made without her consent,” adding. “This is not an issue of the past, and so the fight continues.”