Forced to be Sterilized
There was the rustling of trash bins. It must have been a cleaning lady, but Consuelo Hermosillo was unsure.
A voice interjected the rustling: “Aye hijita, you better sign those papers or your baby is probably going to die.”
And then there was darkness.
Consuelo remembered little on the day she was sterilized. She recalled going to a friend’s baby shower with her two small children, Oscar and Evon. She left the party around the time of the evening when the early autumn heat lingers long after the sun has set. As she climbed into her car with her children, her water broke.
Consuelo, 23, was excited. She went to her home off of Ganahl street and immediately got her kids into their pajamas. She stalled a bit, hoping to increase her chances of a natural birth. Her husband, Prospero, finally took Consuelo and the children to the Woman’s and Children’s Hospital at the Los Angeles County Hospital. As her family sat in the waiting room, Consuelo was wheeled away into a hospital hall.
“Aye hijita, you better sign those papers or your baby is probably going to die.”
She watched the nurses and doctors run past her and around her.
“When will it be my turn,” she thought.
Eventually, an attendant rolled her into an exam room, though Consuelo would later have no recollection of that at all. They must have given her some privacy. It definitely couldn’t have been as bad as her last pregnancy with Evon, where the nurses took her into an examination room with a doctor and a small class of training residents.
It disturbed her that so many people would watch her unclothed and vulnerable. Surely, she would have remembered something as uncomfortable as that? Consuelo felt lonely, she wished her husband was there to comfort her, but instead, she lay by herself in her bed. The rest remained a blur.
Consuelo woke up and saw her daughter, who she later named Consuelo. Then the newborn was whisked away by a nurse, due to a heart murmur. A lot of what happened after the baby disappeared remained blocked out.
Consuelo blocked out a lot of memories from her youth. Consuelo was born in Veracruz, Mexico in 1949. At the age of nine, Consuelo’s parents left her behind in Veracruz when they immigrated to the United States. Consuelo was left behind in a Catholic orphanage.
Life was difficult for girls in the orphanage. They had to boil their own water and make their own bread daily, as well as clean the nuns’ bedrooms. When Consuelo was fifteen, her mother returned to the orphanage. Consuelo was overjoyed. She dreamt of attending an American school and becoming a secretary. After her immigration to the US, Consuelo met her new baby brother. It soon became clear that Consuelo was not there to go to school. She was there to be both a babysitter and maid.
It was September 4 1973, two days after giving birth to her third child, Consuelo was taken to see her baby Consuelo in a little pink incubator. The baby was healthy, despite the heart murmur, and would be going home with her mother.
Before being cleared to leave the hospital, Consuelo entered an exam room with a doctor and her husband, Prospero. After the final exam, Consuelo asked the doctor, “how will I take care of myself? Will I use the pills or the injection or what?”
The doctor said something to the effect, “You won’t need anything, because we cut your tubes. You signed for it.”
Prospero and Consuelo looked at each other. What could they do but make the most of it? Consuelo was twenty three then and Prospero was twenty four. They were still at the tender age where they just accepted everything around them as normal and natural.They had been together for eight years and surely they could make it through this misfortune.
The couple had met when Consuelo was fifteen, about to be sixteen. Prospero was a busboy at a nearby restaurant and knew a relative of Consuelo. He followed Consuelo around waiting for the perfect moment, or nerve, to ask her on a date. The busboy and department store employee soon became boyfriend and girlfriend, dating behind Consuelo’s mother’s back. After several years of dating, the pair decided that they wanted to marry. Consuelo’s mother, not wanting to lose her free childcare and maid service, forbade the union, so the pair ran off and eloped, marrying in 1961 in a modest town hall service.
In the exam room, the pair looked at each other. The doctor showed Consuelo the paper that she had signed, relinquishing her right to give birth. There was no mistake about it, the signature was definitely Consuelo’s. However, Consuelo had no recollection of ever signing anything. She assumed that she had signed after her epidural had started to take effect. With the paper signed, Dr Martin Muth had performed a tubal ligation moments before delivering Consuelo’s baby by cesarean section .
Although the extraction of Consuelo’s signature seemed unethical, this was not the Los Angeles County Hospital’s first time performing such a procedure. Karen Benker witnessed the sterilization of other Latinas like Consuelo in the maternity ward during her residency as a third year medical student at the hospital in 1971.
“You won’t need anything, because we cut your tubes. You signed for it.”
On that early fall evening when Consuelo arrived at the hospital, part of the doctors’ job was to convince Latina patients to sign for sterilization. Frustrated and struggling to communicate, the physicians often resorted to less than pleasant measures to get a signature. Karen once witnessed a woman going into labor and screaming in pain as a doctor held a syringe full of the pain killing epidural high above his head.
“You Want This?! You Want this?!” the physician shouted and taunted.
“Well then you have to sign this!” he said, holding a piece of paper that would have signed away the women’s right to ever give birth again. Some doctors and nurses were reported to have slapped patients as a means to get them to sign away their fallopian tubes.
Such cases happened in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The doctors at the Los Angeles County Hospital felt that the population explosion that had occurred in the previous decade threatened the start of severe overpopulation, which would create shortages in food and resources nationwide. The physicians believed that it was their responsibility to find a cure for overpopulation. Since the Los Angeles County Hospital treated the largest barrio outside of Mexico, efforts to lower the birthrate were directed at Latinas. Some doctors attempted to tell the Latinas that limiting their births to three cesareans was for the patient’s own good. Other doctors told Latinas that having three cesareans was unlawful.
If Consuelo wanted to cut her tubes, there were plenty of opportunities to say so during her third pregnancy. Consuelo was initially told that it was illegal for her to have more than three cesareans. At a nearby clinic, a lady doctor who appeared to be strict and “Russian” pushed Consuelo to sign papers for a tubal ligation. The doctor told Consuelo that the legal limit to have a cesarian is three operations, any further births could endanger the child and mother.
She asked Consuelo to sign the consent form ahead of time, so she could transfer the document to Dr. Martin Muth, who would be performing the cesarean section on Consuelo. With the signature, Muth could sterilize Consuelo without incident moments before the birth of the younger Consuelo.
Feeling as though her dream for a large happy family was slipping away at the clinic, Consuelo burst into tears after the attending doctor asked for her to sign the document. Being so young, Consuelo was conflicted: she felt like she was dependent on the opinion of the doctor, yet in her heart, she felt that her body could give birth to more than just three children. She wanted a large family and had a plan in action on how to care for so many children. Consuelo envisioned large hot pots of food at dinner time.
A nurse saw Consuelo weeping at the clinic and said, “Mijita! Don’t be stupid, there is no law about three cesarians. I had five and I’m fine.” Consuelo felt more confident in her decision to not sign the papers. She was determined to have a large family. Her husband was raised on a ranch in Chihuahua, Mexico, where having a lot of children was favorable. After all, each child could someday become a ranch hand on the family farm. Consuelo wanted to uphold the tradition of a large family.
But, alas, Consuelo would never have the big family she dreamt of. As she went home with her third baby on September 4, 1973, she felt a little sadness with every passing moment. Taking home a new baby was a beautiful experience for Consuelo, but she couldn’t help but think, “This is my last time taking a new baby home”. It would be only the first of many other last first moments. At twenty three, it was too early for it to be the last time, but what could Consuelo do?
Consuelo and Prospero vowed to stay quiet about the whole sterilization. In a world where celebrations usually involved life markers and new life, the couple was left out. Every baby shower was a constant reminder of the children Consuelo could not bear. A sadness crept over her when someone asked about a fourth pregnancy. Out of embarrassment and shame Consuelo never mentioned that she could no longer have babies. Prospero, a very private man had decided with Consuelo to keep the sterilization a secret between the two of them.
Consuelo was angry. In her mind doctors looked at her and saw a statistic; a poor young Chicana mother with too many mouths to feed. Perhaps they saw her and thought she would be suckling on welfare for all eternity with a trail of children behind her. In truth, that was more than likely exactly what the doctors at the Los Angeles County Hospital saw. –
According to Karen Benker, the Los Angeles County hospital was funded by the United States Agency for International Development to help cut down the birthrate of Los Angeles’ impoverished communities in 1971. As a third year medical student, Karen Benker studied at the USC Medical School. During her rotations, doctors assigned groups of six to eight students to work together. In 1971, she was assigned to be a radiology technician in the obstetrics ward of the hospital. It was not long before she felt something was amiss. During her orientation, the group was taken to a floor tour hosted by Dr. Daniel Mishell, an older, highly esteemed doctor. The students followed him nodding politely and attentively as they could. The older gentleman began to speak excitedly and almost proudly about a big federal grant given to the hospital by the USAID or United States Agency for International Development, to support efforts to cut down the birth rate of blacks and Mexicans through sterilization. He claimed to have used tubal ligation , or the severing of a woman’s fallopian tubes to prevent pregnancy. The students balked, scarcely able to hide their disgust through a thin veil of politeness and eagerness. Mishell gave it a rest and probably decided that his work may have proved too radical for his pupils.
“ I want you to ask every one of the girls if she wants her tubes tied regardless of how old she is. Remember, everyone who says yes to getting her tubes tied means two tubes (practice) for some resident or intern and less work for some poor son- of a bitch next year…”
Mishell was not alone in his views. The head of the hospital, Dr. Edward Quilligan, also gave the students a similar speech. As Karen surveyed her new station, she noticed that the obstetrics ward was noticeably newer and more advanced than the rest of the hospital. There was definitely a lot more equipment on this floor compared to the other stations. It became apparent to Karen that this part of the hospital had been under some sort of restoration. One of the students marveled at the difference between the obstetrics ward and the rest of the hospital. Quilligan responded proudly, “Oh yes. We just got a federal grant.” He said a number, it could have been two million or four million dollars. The doctor continued, “to show how low we can cut the birthrate of the Negro and Mexican populations in Los Angeles County.”
The veil of politeness broke ever so slightly for a moment. One student, or maybe it was a few students, asked in disbelief, “what did say you say?” Dr. Quilligan said no more. An attending professor attempted to offer some sort of explanation, muttering things like “ There is a lot of poverty” and something about “overpopulation”. Dr. Quilligan sort of stood there. Then the students went their own way and the doctor went his way.
Another former resident at the USC center, Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld, claimed that between twenty and thirty percent of the doctors pushed sterilizations on women ignorant of the outcomes. A medical consultant for the hospital at the time said, “people pollute, and too many people crowded too close together cause many of our social and economic problems.” He went on to say, “ As physicians, we have obligations to the society of which we are a part. The welfare mess, as it has been called, cries out for solutions, one of which is fertility control”.
Yet, the economics and overpopulation panic were not the only factors that inspired physicians to push many to sign to get “their tubes cut”. The Los Angeles County Hospital was once a hospital with many opportunities for young residents to practice operations on the impoverished and homeless. It seemed to be a good deal — — a poor man could get some sort of medical attention, and a young training doctor could get practice.
Unfortunately, with the advent of increased insurance payments, the hospital lost its supply of indigents and the residents were without practice bodies. The hospital searched frantically for practice subjects and resorted to “selling” surgeries to patients, getting them through various forms of coercion into signing documents. A tubal ligation, or fallopian tube cutting procedure, also happened to be a surgery that some residents needed to practice . On the same floor Consuelo was sterilized, a doctor told his training physicians, “ I want you to ask every one of the girls if she wants her tubes tied regardless of how old she is. Remember, everyone who says yes to getting her tubes tied means two tubes (practice) for some resident or intern and less work for some poor son- of a bitch next year…”
Sterilizations with little to no consent was nothing new to California or the United States. “Undesirables” were first targeted nearly 120 years ago in a 1897 Michigan bill. The act would have sought to keep degenerates, or the mentally ill and criminal from creating more of their kind. The bill never was passed. Eight years later, an incarnation of the Michigan bill cropped up in Pennsylvania in 1905 that hoped to prevent “idiocy”. The bill was vetoed. Similar bills popped up throughout the nation in between 1917 and 1925 each being shot down and marked as unconstitutional.
“I could have supported more children. But how could the doctors know? In their minds I was just a poor Mexican lady that would be on welfare forever”
The nation took a different turn in 1925, when Virginia and Michigan each passed their own laws that required women leaving a psychiatric ward to be sterilized before their exit. This law was only supported more two years later in Buck vs Bell. Seventeen year old Carrie Buck bore an illegitimate child due to a rape by a relative of her foster parents. Because the pregnancy probably embarrassed Buck’s foster parents, she was subsequently sent to a psychiatry ward as a “sexually promiscuous” woman and sterilized before her reentry to society. The Virginia court declared that Buck was feeble minded along with her biological mother, proving that feeble mindedness could be inherited. The court declared that a licensed public official could legally sterilize a mentally unfit person in order to prevent the continuation of an unfit kind. By 1937, twenty more states followed Virginia’s footsteps and passed compulsory sterilization laws of their own. By 1977 only five of the twenty sterilization laws were repealed.
Unfortunately for Consuelo, by 1973 it was easier for any woman to become sterilized. In 1969 the American College of obstetrics and gynecology changed its guidelines for sterilization. Prior to 1969, a woman’s had to apply for a sterilization and the request had to be approved by a panel of doctors before any sterilizing operation could begin. After 1969, a patient only had to sign a consent form in order to become sterilized.
The sterilization abuses within hospitals across the nation began to soar. While the Los Angeles County hospital sent some Latinas home barren in the West Coast, Black women were more likely to become sterilized in the East. The same year Consuelo was sterilized, two Black sisters aged twelve and fifteen were also sterilized in Alabama after their illiterate mother signed an “x” on a mysterious hospital consent form.
Three years after her painful sterilization, Consuelo’s husband was making 138,000 in 2016 dollars as a car salesman, more than enough to support a large brood. As the family grew wealthier, they moved to the nicer suburbs of Los Angeles to La Puente. As the couple struggled less and less, Consuelo would think I could have supported more children. But how could the doctors know? In their minds I was just a poor Mexican lady that would be on welfare forever.
Nearly forty years after Consuelo had been sterilized, the Hermosillos owned a small chain of several upscale Mexican inspired restaurants. Instead of cooking large pots of food for tiny mouths, Consuelo served food to larger mouths.