Belly of the Beast (PBS Independent Lens, NR)

You may have read about women in an ICE detention center in Georgia being sterilized without their permission. It’s a horrifying story that came to light only because a female African American nurse risked her job to report the male surgeon who was performing hysterectomies (removal of the uterus, producing permanent sterilization) on immigrant women without their consent. Sad to say, the practice of performing involuntary sterilization procedures on women, particularly women who are poor and/or nonwhite, is not something new in American history. It’s also a practice that is not limited to non-citizens, as we learn Erika Cohn’s new documentary Belly of the Beast.

Cohn uses the story of Kelli Dillon as the entry point to the horrifying practice of involuntary sterilization of female prisoners in California, with a look back at the history of the eugenics movement in the United States. Dillon, a young black mother, was jailed for killing her abusive husband (perhaps a story worthy of its own film). While in prison she was told she had cysts and needed surgery. In fact, during that surgery, doctors performed a hysterectomy on her. Not only did she not give permission for that procedure, she did not discover it had been performed until she began suffering menopausal symptoms at age 24 (menopause typically occurs after age 45, as the body naturally stops producing estrogen and progesterone).

Rather than meekly accept her fate, Dillon, while still in prison, contacted Justice Now, a legal aid organization founded by Cynthia Chandler. It turned out that her story was not unusual—an audit of state and prison records revealed that almost 1,400 sterilizations were performed on prisoners between 1997 and 2013. As a result, California passed a law banning sterilization of prison inmates for the purpose of birth control. In addition, Dillon and Chandler are working to gain reparations for those involuntarily sterilized, from 1909 to the present.

One of the oddest sights in this film, although perhaps not so odd if you have much experience with the power hierarchies in American medicine, was that of OB-GYNs defending the practice of surgical sterilization of female prisoners, the apparent assumptions for their reasoning completely divorced from the realities of the women on whom that surgery was performed. One of the closing screen cards quotes a physician claiming “the new rule deprived women of the option to have their tubes tied after multiple pregnancies, and thereby sentenced them to suffer through inadvertent pregnancies and to bear children that they did not wish to bear.” To be clear, for some women surgical sterilization is the right choice, but they must be allowed to make that choice of their own free will, and must give informed consent for it to be carried out.  Given the power relationships within a prison, there’s no reason to assume that either condition was regularly met. And here’s something else to consider: not a single California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation doctor or official has faced any consequences for their role in the involuntary sterilizations.

Today, eugenics is generally regarded as an abhorrent practice of the bad old days, and is particularly associated with Nazi Germany. The idea behind the eugenics movement was that the human race could be improved if only the most “fit” members were allowed to reproduce—and rather than leave such things to chance, the practice of eugenics often included involuntary sterilization of those considered “unfit.”. Of course, anyone who was paying attention during Biology 101 knows that such classifications are nonsense, but if you begin from a position of racial and economic prejudice, it’s easier to justify taking away the reproductive rights of people you consider inferior. And those prejudices can provide justifications for all sorts of abuses, included those documented in Belly of the Beast. It’s also worth noting that the during the heyday of eugenics, the idea was embraced both in the United States as a whole, and specifically in California, where a 1909 law allowed the sterilization of “unfit” women, a classification that included poor non-white women, those with physical and mental disabilities, and those convicted of crimes. | Sarah Boslaugh

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