The Sterilization Of Mexican-American Women

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There has been a long history of forced sterilization in the United States. Many of these coerced sterilizations were targeted towards poor people, minorities and those who were disabled. According to a peer reviewed journal, Mexican American and Eugenic Sterilization, one of the root cases of sterilization, is Buck v. Bell. Carrie Buck was a woman who had been taken into a mental institution. Her condition was said to be present through at least three generations of her family. The law in Virginia allowed for the sterilization of those in mental institutions to be sterilized in order to protect the well-being of society (Lira & Stern 2014). This case validated sterilization based on eugenics. The court argued that feeblemindedness and imbecility were hereditary and those who presented these traits were to not be allowed to reproduce to prevent affecting the next generation. The eugenics movement would later begin to shape the views of reproduction in the United States.

The first case that countered coerced sterilization in the United states began with the Skinner v. Oklahoma decision. Skinner had been convicted of three separate crimes and according to the Oklahoma's Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act, if an offender commits more than two or more felonies they were to be sterilized. This upholds the belief that criminal like behavior and feeblemindedness was hereditary. This case rejected sterilization based on eugenics the supreme court argued that reproduction was a basic human right. This case was not the last of its kind, forced sterilization continued to be an issue in the United States.

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After World War II ended in 1945, many had concerns about immigration and the growing population. These concerning issues influenced the sterilization of marginalized groups.

A group that was primarily targeted was women of color. In California, Mexican-American women were more prominently to be risk at being coerced into sterilization. California was one of the states to create laws allowing the sterilization of those deemed unfit, an imbecile or feebleminded.

This research paper will focus on the coerced sterilization of Mexican American women. Madrigal v. Quilligan, is an infamous case involving Mexican American women who suffered forced sterilization. These procedures were performed as a result of racial prejudices against those who were Mexican American, only to be justified by population growth. These procedures were brought to the public’s attention by Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld who worked at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. Rosenfeld believed that Mexican American women who were in the maternity ward were being sterilized involuntarily, without their consent or knowledge.

After Rosenfeld revealed medical records of the women who were sterilized to the public it caught many people’s attention. In particular it caught the attention of Charles Nabarrete and Antonia Hernandez attorneys who had decide to take on the case of these women. Antonia’s Hernandez interest in this case had spurred due to her mother being pressured to undergo sterilization as well. These inceidents also caught the attention of Chicana feminist such as Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional a organization that empowers Chicanx women politically and economically by job training, assisting in the creation of bilingual consent forms etc,

The ten women who were affected by these involuntary procedures were Rebecca Figueroa, Dolores Madrigal, Consuelo Hermosillo, Helena Orozco, Georgina Hernandez, Estella Benavides, Maria Hurtado, Maria Figueroa, Jovita Rivera, and Guadalupe Acosta. The goal of this case was to seek polices in regard to sterilization as well as compensation for any injuries that many of these women endured. These ten women told their stories of being coerced into having sterilization procedures by the staff at the medical center they were admitted to.

According to the newspaper Trial Hears Handwriting Expert: Sterilized Women were 'Troubled,' Court Told, these womens primary language was Spanish and spoke very little english. While the maternity ward, they were given english forms that they were unable to fully understand. In addition, to being given forms they couldn’t make sense of, they were made to sign under heavy medication or in the middle of being in labor (Zacchino 30). According to the Newspaper Latin Women File Suit on Sterilization, one of the ten women, Dolores Madrigal arrived to the medical center to give birth. Many of the nurse suggested she undergo sterilization because having another child would result in her death. In fear of her life, she signed papers that she was unable to comprehend. This would result in the tying of her tubes which would affect her ability to have another child (Rawitch 1).

In June of 1975, the women of the Madrigal v. Quilligan filed a lawsuit against County Hospital’s Director of Obstetrics, E.J. Quilligan and Los Angeles County Hospital Medical Center. They wanted state and federal policies of sterilization consent to be enforced. In order to back up their claims they referred back to Roe v. Wade which protects a woman’s right to having children. The lawyers of this case that the rights of these women had been violated by not providing consent forms that these women would able to understand due to language barriers. In the newspaper Plaintiffs Lose Suit Over 10 Sterilizations, many argued that these women were undergoing a lot of pain and were heavily medicated, therefore nurses had the better judgement in what was in the best interest of the patients. Which in their case meant receiving a sterilization procedure (Zacchino 1). Again this countered by a gynecologist-obstetrician, Dr. Don Sloan. According to a newspaper, 10 Women Will Appeal Ruling on Sterilization, Dr. Sloan elaborated on his court statement that the law states that there is 72 hour waiting period during the time a woman signs a sterilization consent form and the actual operation (Zacchino 26). This only shows that there was no waiting when it came to these women, many of these sterilizations right then and there, many after they had given birth.

As a result, despite the loss of their case the Madrigal Ten were successful in achieving policy reform. According peer reviewed journal, Sterilization Suit Lost. Off Our Backs, new guidelines had been created. This included that consent forms were to be given to them in their native language. The grammar of the consent form should be of a sixth-grade level. (The only hope as that medical personnel are willing to comply to these new guidelines (Douglas 1978).

Doctors justified these procedures by claiming these women were unfit and feeble minded. They argued that by allowing these women to reproduce and have their own kids it would create an everlasting impact to generations to come by bringing disease of certain deficiencies into society. These acts are relative to the eugenics movement when scientist had this belief that those who were not Caucasian were to be deemed inferior. They claimed that in order to improve the human race we shouldn't let people who are unfit to reproduce, and selective breeding should be an option. In the newspaper 10 Lose their Fertility--and their Case, having learned that they were sterilized affecting these women mentally and physically, it led to many of them to fall into depression, have low self-esteem and low energy. It also has caused strain on their personal relationships with their family and partners (Kupers 7).

This case is closely linked to the eugenics movement. Eugenic science began with experimentations on plants and animals by Davenport who was inspired by Mendels experimentation on peas that would explain hereditary traits. With Davenports discovery, it would allow them to pick desirable traits. Through this discovery there were hopes of improving human race. After a while Davenports interest had shifted from investigating plants and animals, to investigating the human race. Eugenicist believed that If we can get rid of the traits that were considered undesirable, we can create a better world.

The way scientist in the 19th and 20th centuries used biology to find explanations for racial differences was by comparing physical features. Scientist compared skulls hair texture, eye shape etc. Scientist believed that that cultural and behavioral traits were linked to race. The white race was said to have traits that were superior while those who were considered “colored” had traits that were inferior.

In States of Delinquency, Chavez-Garcia talks about how younger people from the Latino/Latina community were being incarcerated and mistreated in California’s correctional facilities. These people would be labeled as “mentally defective”. This labeled cause many of these people to be transferred to mental hospitals where they happened to be sterilized. There was no intervention from the court. It was believed that their delinquency and 'feeble mind' was a result of their genetics (Chávez-García 27).

In addition, the chapter three Eugenics Field Worker, Racial Pathologist in In States of Delinquency, focuses on the role of eugenics fieldworkers and the role they played in racializing, and criminalizing youths. The youth they targeted were primarily Mexicans/Mexican Americans and African Americans as well as their families. Mildred S. Covert one of the fieldworkers, conducted various interviews at Whittier State School, interviewing boys. The chapter shows how fieldworkers use different kinds of techniques to help them evaluate youth and their families. These field workers were using beliefs thought through our society about gender, race and ethnicity to make assumptions and make conclusions about the group of youth they were studying from different ethnicities such ass Mexicans and African Americans. By making these assumptions it would allow the justification of classifying them as feeble minded people and potentially leading to sterilization (Chávez-García 79)

Years after the Madrigal v. Quilligan case, filmmaker Renne Tajima-Peña was able to create a documentary allowing the surviving women of this case to tell their story. According to the peer reviewed journal Film Review: No Más Bebés, the documentary showcases the women reiterating that they never consented to being stripped of their womanhood. Throughout the film we see the everlasting affects these procedures had on these women. Many of their marriages and partnerships had ended due to their inability to have children, some had lost their babies due to complications, some were having issues with depression and wanting to take their own lives. Despite the trauma these women endured, these women were able to rebuild their lives (Bishop 2018).

Work Cited

  1. Olender, B. (n.d.). Access to this collection is generously supported by Arcadia funds. Among The Plaintiffs--Gloria Molina, on the left, and Dolores Madrigal at news conference. . Retrieved from
  2. Bishop, K. (2018). Film Review: No Más Bebés. Teaching Sociology, 46(3), 288-290.
  3. Chávez-García, M. (2012). States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California's Juvenile Justice System. University of California Press. Retrieved from
  4. Douglas, C. (1978). Sterilization suit lost. Off Our Backs, 12.
  5. Kupers, T. A. (1978, Sep 28). 10 lose their fertility--and their case: Legal system joins medical system in victimizing women sterilized unknowingly. Los Angeles Times
  6. Lira, N., & Stern, A. (2014). Mexican American and eugenic sterilization. 39(2), 9-34.
  7. Rawitch, R. (1975, Jun 19). Latin women file suit on sterilization: 11 claim they were coerced or deceived into having operations STERILIZATION. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995) Retrieved from
  8. Zacchino, N., & Lindgren, K. (1978, Jul 01). Plaintiffs lose suit over 10 sterilizations. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995) Retrieved from
  9. Zacchino, N. (1978, Jun 15). Trial hears handwriting expert: Sterilized women were 'troubled,' court told. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995) Retrieved from
  10. Zacchino, N. (1978, Jul 08). 10 women will appeal ruling on sterilization. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995) Retrieved from
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