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Thousands of Latinos were sterilized in the 20th century. Amid COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

The CDC says people who are fully vaccinated may get together with other fully vaccinated individuals in small groups without masks.

The office worker at a special needs center was afraid the shot would prevent her from ever getting pregnant.

The mistrust didn’t form out of thin air.

In 1973, Hermosillo, an immigrant from Mexico, worked a small catering business at home while her husband bartended and unloaded appliances at a department store.

In November of that year, the 24-year-old went to a hospital for an emergency caesarian section to give birth to her third child.
The baby would be her last.

Hermosillo was sterilized without informed consent at the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center.

“You better sign, or your baby is going to die,” she said a nurse told her.

What does victory against the COVID-19 pandemic look like?

Her signature is scribbled on a form allowing the procedure, but she doesn’t remember signing, saying she was medicated. She didn't know she was sterilized until a doctor's appointment later when she asked for birth control.

A whistleblower – a resident physician later let go by the hospital – leaked that the practice occurred on many women. Hermosillo became one of 10 Mexican and Chicana plaintiffs in the landmark Madrigal v. Quilligan federal class-action case, which grabbed headlines in the mid-1970s. The judge sided with Dr. Edward James Quilligan, and the women lost, but the case inspired legislation passed in 1979 to abolish the practice in California.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors issued an apology in 2018 for the coerced sterilizations, but the women did not receive reparation money as victims did in other states, such as Virginia and North Carolina.

"As far as justice, they never received that," said Virginia Espino, who documented the women's stories as co-producer of a film called "No Mas Bebés," ("No More Babies" in Spanish).

Espino, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an expert in reproductive injustice, said "it’s unclear how many women were sterilized at the LAC-USC medical center. The lawyer for the women who brought the lawsuit estimated "hundreds.”

Many didn’t speak fluent English and didn’t understand forms they signed, and in some cases, they were coerced into signing. Many had labor complications and were told lies that they or their babies would die if they didn't sign.

Insidious sterilizations didn’t occur inside that hospital only. Throughout the 20th century, about 20,000 women and men were sterilized in California alone under state eugenics policies, according to researchers, including University of Michigan professor Alexandra Minna Stern. The policies targeted patients of state-run asylums or group homes. A disproportionate number were Hispanic.

As COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues, hesitancy among vulnerable communities, including Hispanic people, is piqued – and history is unearthed.

Experts and those within the communities say the skepticism partly stems from unethical medical practices that targeted people of color. Unwanted sterilizations didn’t occur just in California among Mexican women but among Black women in the South, as well as Native American women.

It's not a pretty picture': Why the lack of racial data around COVID-19 vaccines is 'massive barrier' to better distribution From the 1930s through the 1970s, for example, about a third of the female population in Puerto Rico was sterilized under population control policies that coerced women into postpartum sterilization after their second child's birth, according to the University of Wisconsin's Office of the Gender and Women's Studies Librarian annotated bibliography on the topic.

The first large-scale clinical trial for contraceptives involved Puerto Rican women: In 1956, the pills were tested on poor women in Rio Piédras, a housing project in San Juan, according to a historical review published in the Canadian Family Physician journal. The women didn't know they were experimental.

"Women who stepped forward to describe side effects of nausea, dizziness, headaches, and blood clots were discounted as ‘unreliable historians,’” wrote Dr. Pamela Verma Liao and Dr. Janet Dollin. The clinical trials involved pills with much higher hormone levels than today's contraceptives.

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