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Sexual Liberalism and the Ligation of Morality in America

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With the explosion of sexual liberalism in the 1920s, the arousal of issues such as birth control and abortions challenged the hegemonic beliefs surrounding non-marital sex and female autonomy. While the patriarchal tendencies of the government fought and failed to limit the availability of birth control, the dominant racist ideologies in America changed the direction of the contraceptive revolution. A key leader, Margaret Sanger, publicized the fight for birth control by lobbying for support from the medical community and establishing birth control centers; however, she was selective in her course of action and saw birth control as “the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit” (D’Emilio and Freedman 165). Unfortunately, her class-exclusive beliefs had a profound effect on the regulation of public health services. Southern states which had a “fear of black population growth,” in the late 1930s pushed for state-funded birth control services to appeal to black women who were racialized as poor and in need of federally-subsidized health services (D’Emilio and Freedman 167). In the 1960s, as women began to explore more ways of “controlling their fertility,” the focus of the contraceptive revolution shifted to sterilization as a possible form of “full autonomy” (D’Emilio and Freedman 175). Poor black women were once again drawn to state-funded reproductive health clinics and doctors took this as an opportunity to “sterilize far larger numbers of women whose fertility patterns offended their values” (D’Emilio and Freedman 175).

Similarly, the treatment of women of Mexican origin in the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in the late 1960s and early 1970s mirrored the treatment of black women throughout the contraceptive revolution. After the population bomb scare of the 1960s, there were many government initiatives such as the Zero Population Growth Movement in effort to reduce the population of the welfare dependent, whom the Mexican-American population was racialized as. Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld, a resident of the LA+USC Medical Center at the time, discovered that Mexican-American women were coerced into sterilization by residents in a radical act of eugenics, the planned breeding of individuals with desired traits to create a better population. When the women were in labor, residents would ask mothers to sign consent forms to “save their babies”; however, the women, afraid and confused, unknowingly consented to tubal ligation. After their babies were delivered, the sterilization procedure would be performed unbeknownst to the patient. Dr. Rosenfeld enlisted Antonia Hernandez, a young lawyer from UCLA law school to gather women who had unjustly been sterilized, producing a class action law suit, Madrigal v. Quilligan, against the chief resident of the facility at the time. The prosecutors fought to expose the acts of the doctors and claim retribution for the suffering of the nine plaintiffs who had been sterilizations. Consequently, the effect of gender construction and the racial oppression of the Mexican-American women makes the forced sterilization of women of color in the LA-USC Medical Center unjust, ethically immoral, and an additional chapter in the hegemonic Master Narrative of America.

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The gender construction of women primarily as machines of procreation emphasizes the effect of patriarchy in society and within the homes of Mexican-American women due to their inability to have children. According to Allan Johnson in the excerpt “Patriarchy, The System: An It, Not a He, a Them, or an Us” from his book The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, the prevailing effect of patriarchy, or superiority of males over females, has led society to “identify women primarily as mothers…in which women do most domestic work” (Johnson 69). Placing principal responsibility of human reproduction on women limits the opportunities women have outside of motherhood and reinforces the flow of oppression pushed upon by patriarchy. According to the 2015 movie No Más Bebés Por Vida, by Renee Tajima-Peña, women who were sterilized, such as Dolores Madrigal, began to experience the effects of patriarchy within their culture through abuse or abandonment, because their husbands did not understand their wives’ inability to produce more children. The perception that the sole purpose of women is to produce babies is so deeply imbedded in men’s minds that once that right is taken away, it disrupts the order of society. As Johnson describes, in the eyes of a male-dominated society, “child care [is] a priority in women’s lives,” and women who once had the birth right to produce and care for their own children were suddenly left barren and helpless (Johnson 66). Many women who were interviewed in the documentary, such as Consuelo Hermosillo, expressed that they felt less feminine and as if a part of their soul had been taken away along with their ability to bear children. The effect of the sterilization on the Mexican-American women was amplified by gender formation, as it seized the primary function of the female anatomy in a world where new life is dependent on females.

America’s hegemonic belief of white supremacy, or the superiority of the white population, contributed to the racial formation of the Mexican-American population, and helped forge a “logical” explanation to perform sterilizations. Racial formation of an oppressed group is divided into two categories, structural and representational, both of which influence each other and sustain the flow of racialization. In the structural aspect, institutions such as the government, health systems, and media influence how a group of people are racialized. After the population boom scare in the 1960’s and 1970’s the government attempted to take a Zero Population Growth initiative to solve the problem; however, included in the main concerns of reducing the population size overall were “welfare dependency and illegitimacy” (Tajima-Peña 178). The government and powerful medical professional chose forced sterilization as the prime method of eugenics, due to the attributed “hyper fertility” of Mexican women similar to what black women experience in the 1930s. According to the film No Mas Bebes, after lobbies fought to control the population growth, the government created federal programs which funded healthcare institutions that performed sterilizations. Many of these federally-funded institutions advertised to poor women in need of subsidized health care, and they took that opportunity to carry out the government’s plan to reduce the population of “subordinate” individuals. Institutions such as the legislative chamber and the medical society used the racialization of Mexican-American individuals to rid of “lower class” members of society through scientific methods.

In the representational aspect, cultural and hegemonic beliefs that followed the Master Narrative created a negative image of Mexican women and attribute to their sterilization. The Master Narrative revolves around Eurocentric ideals and blindly neglects the diversity and wealth that immigrants brought to the nation due to belief in nativism, or the favoring of native people over immigrants. Just as Margaret Sanger said in her nativist view, birth control was way to have “more children from the fit, less from the unfit” (D’Emilio and Freedman 165). In the underlying hegemonic belief that the immigrant Mexican population as a whole is poor, illegitimate, and uneducated, the white population has been raised on a pedestal. The Mexican-American women represented everything that challenged the Master Narrative: a source to multiply the population of Mexican immigrants and create diversity in America or in other words “pollute the gene pool” (Tajima-Peña 178). The belief that Chicanas “dirtied” the American population fueled nativism essentially causing an “effort to restrict and control the Latino population” (Tajima-Peña 178). Furthermore, the influence of white supremacy and Eurocentrism played a key role in the playing out of sterilizations. According to No Mas Bebes, women unknowingly signed a consent form for tubal ligation, or sterilization, because of the misinterpretation of questions due to the language barrier. The medical word “sterilization” in English connotes a different meaning to the Spanish word “sterilization” which means to clean. Imposition of only English-speaking staff and communication forced the Mexican-American women to conform to society’s standards and did not account for their difference in culture. The racial formation was presented representationally by the views that the Hispanic population was inferior, and structurally by the imposition of sterilization on the Hispanic population by institutions. Both of these factors’ influence on the Mexican population ultimately made forced sterilization a very prevalent practice in the 1960s and 1970s.

Viewed with an intersectional lens, the converge of the effect of gender, class, and race drastically change the condition of Mexican-American women and embody the core values of the counter-hegemonic Chicana feminist movement. The argument advocated by the Chicana feminists, to redefine the meaning of “choice” and female autonomy, played a key role in Antonio Hernandez’s case, Quilligan v. Madrigal, to expose the practice of doctors and residents of the LAC-USC Medical Center. Not only did they have to fight the oppression from the patriarchy, but also of white feminist movement, explained in Anna Nieto Gomez’s 1974 article, “La Feminista”. According to Gomez, Chicanas “have had to fight racism, sexism, and sexual racism” (Gomez 217). Chicana women found that in their fight for reproductive rights, they faced gender formation, imposed by men who ran the patriarchal system of society; racial formation, by white supremacists who saw their “Anglo-Saxon” race as superior; and sexist racism from white, middle-class women who knew only how to fight against abortion for their own needs. In the search for total female autonomy, the Feministas, or women who “fight the economic oppression delivered through sexism as well as through racism” for both men and women, were left with no group to collaborate with or support them, as their needs were unique (Gomez 218). In fact, their needs differed greatly from the group whose cause was closest to their own; the white feminists. White feminists were fighting for the right to abortion without acknowledging the coercive abortion techniques used on Chicana women. “Activists organizing against racially based pro-sterilization views argues that women had a basic human right to bear a child,” rather than the basic human right to abort a child (Tajima-Peña 180). Forced sterilizations were so prevalent in the Mexican-American community that the right to abortion overrode the right to have children; a cause that white feminists were not concerned about. In fact, they “opposed the call for a waiting period for sterilizations as a threat to abortion and sterilization on demand” (Tajima-Peña 180). From an intersectional approach, it becomes clear that gender, and most importantly race played a huge role in the fight against forced sterilization. The male-dominated government chose to control both aspects of forced sterilization and access to reproductive health resources. The Chicana feminists, at the head of the counter-hegemonic movement, had to deal with oppression from men and white feminists due to their supposed inferiority in race, class, and gender.

The women of color who experienced a traumatic medical procedure that forever changed their lives were victims to not only the unregulated medical system, but also to triple subordination. With the pressure on these individuals as females, the main creators of life, as Mexicans, oppressed by nativism, and as lower-class individuals, categorized as illiterate and poor, women of Mexican-origin experienced an intersectional form of subjugation. The results of the Madrigal v. Quilligan did not help their cause. The Court sided with the doctors, claiming that the procedures were performed with the best intentions for the patients. However, in order to “reverse” the effects of racial and gender formation placed upon women of color, a drastic change of the organization of hospitals and women centers would have to occur. The main reasons why doctors at the LA-USC Medical Center were able to conduct inhumane versions of eugenics were due to their exploitation of the language barrier, the condition of the situation, and lack of ethical training. Translators and bilingual consent forms should have been provided for the Mexican-American women to fully understand what procedure they were consenting prior to the time they were in labor, unable to make a decision without worrying that their lives would be in danger. Included in the changes would also be routine checks from a higher section of the government who regulated the procedures done in the medical center. The situation of the women of color at the LA-USC Medical Center portray the consequential effects of the oppression by the dominating group of figures in American society: men, the upper class, doctors, law makers, and judges in the Supreme Court.


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