Talking Reproductive Rights and Forced Sterilizations with Director Erika Cohn

The new film ‘Belly of the Beast’ explores the legacy of forced sterilizations in California’s prison system

“Belly of the Beast.” Photo: Idle Wild Films/PBS Independent Lens

In 2000, Kelli Dillion was 24 years old when she began to feel abdominal pain. An inmate at the Central California Women’s Facility, the world’s largest women’s prison, Dillion was sent to the prison gynecologist for an exam. The doctor suspected she had cancer and booked her for a biopsy. He also asked whether Dillon wanted to have more children. She said yes. Then, he inquired whether she’d agreed to a hysterectomy. Dillion said yes, but only if they found signs of the disease. She came out of surgery and was told there was no cancer, and that the medical team had removed some cysts.

Over the next nine months, Dillon didn’t menstruate, lost 100 pounds, and experienced panic attacks, night sweats, and other tell-tale symptoms of surgical menopause. What Dillon discovered after obtaining her medical records with the help from her lawyer, Cynthia Chandler, would devastate her: She had been sterilized against her consent. The doctors knew she was cancer-free, and yet they removed her ovaries and part of her fallopian tubes.

Dillon’s experience would set her, Chandler, and the prison reform nonprofit Justice Now on a decades-long journey to stop California prisons from sterilizing incarcerated women against their consent. That battle, which played out in the courtroom and in the California state legislature, is at the heart of Belly of the Beast, a new documentary by filmmaker Erika Cohn.

The film is currently available to stream and premieres tonight on PBS. Cohn talked to GEN about the process of filming the documentary, the United States’ long history of forced sterilizations, and the broader reproductive justice movement.

How did you come across this story, and why it was important for you to make it into a documentary?

I was first introduced to attorney Cynthia Chandler in 2010 through a mutual friend. I was really inspired by Cynthia’s work. She was the first attorney in California to get someone out of prison under compassionate release. She had co-founded this organization Justice Now — one of the only organizations in the country that has board members who are currently incarcerated informing strategy. They had a campaign called the “Let Our Families Have A Future Campaign,” which exposed multiple ways that prisons destroy the basic, fundamental human rights of family, one of the most heinous of course being the illegal sterilizations, which were primarily targeting women of color.

That, to me, really screamed eugenics. As a Jewish woman who grew up in Salt Lake City, the phrase “Never Again” was always in the back of my mind. When I learned about this different kind of genocide that was happening through imprisonment, I knew that I wanted to get involved. Cynthia invited me into Justice Now as a volunteer. Later I became a volunteer legal advocate, providing direct service needs for over 150 people inside California’s women’s prisons. From there I really began collaborating with people inside on a project that would become Belly of the Beast. In the initial phases of this film, the idea was to chronicle the incredible human rights documentation work that was happening inside prisons and how that information, that the prison really didn’t want exposed, was funneled out through this underground system of activists informing allied organizations.

That changed a couple of years later when I had the opportunity to meet Kelli. She was the catalyst to begin investigating the illegal sterilizations in prison. Her work really began the process of exposing and investigating the sterilization abuse. When I met her she was working as a community interventionist in Los Angeles doing domestic violence prevention and gang intervention work. At this point in her life she was very career-focused and had put the sterilization issue behind her, acting as an advisor behind the scenes. Once the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2013 began releasing their series of articles about the tubal ligations that were happening during labor and delivery between 2006 and 2010, there was tremendous momentum. All of a sudden this was a national conversation. There was potential for legislation. There were a series of hearings. The movement really needed her to testify on the behalf of so many people who wouldn’t be able to testify. That was also the moment that Kelli and I decided that we would start filming her. If it hadn’t been for Kelli in the first place, none of this would have been exposed.

Can you tell me about Kelli’s experience with the criminal justice system? She’s a domestic violence survivor, a Black woman, and was only 19 when she was incarcerated for killing her abuser.

About 92% of people who are incarcerated in women’s prisons are survivors of abuse. Kelli talks about in the film how domestic violence survivors are criminalized, especially women of color, because they’re not seen as victims. She often says the criminal justice system didn’t see that her life had value multiple times: first throughout her domestic violence trial, and then with her sterilization trial. We know that women of color are the fastest growing prison population. When you look at who is being incarcerated, it’s very clear that this all comes back to eugenics. If you’re locked up throughout your reproductive capacity years, if you’re locked up with increasingly long sentences, you’re therefore unable to reproduce, you are unable to have the basic fundamental human rights of family. Sterilization abuse takes it one step further.

There’s a long history of sterilization abuse in the U.S. I’m Puerto Rican, and coercive sterilizations back home were really widespread in the 20th century. They were simply known as la operación — “the operation.” About one-third of boricua women were sterilized between the 1930s and the 1970s. What’s the history of California?

La Operación was definitely one of the first films that I saw about this, then later No Más Bebés. I feel like all three films are really a part of exposing the legacy of forced sterilization in this country.

When I started this film, I didn’t know that Nazi Germany actually came to the United States to learn from our eugenics policies and how the eugenics movement really got its roots here. That was so shocking. It was very important to include in the film, as well as the historical precedence of the forced sterilizations in the United States and the eugenics program throughout the 20th century. Over 30 states passed eugenics laws, some of which remained on the books well into the 1970s and 1980s.

California was the most notorious in their sterilization program, having sterilized over 20,000 people between 1909 and 1979. Compulsory sterilization targeted those who were seen as “undesirable”: people who were poor, people who became pregnant out of wedlock, people with disabilities, people in prison, people of color. Although the law was repealed in 1979 and in 2003 the governor of California apologized for this heinous eugenics history, this was still going on inside women’s prisons until 2013.

How widespread is the practice of sterilizing incarcerated women in the United States today? Do we know?

Our team sent Freedom of Information Act requests to dozens of states across the country. We know of at least eight states that allow for sterilization under certain conditions. In speaking with other organizations across the nation who worked with people in women’s prisons, we know that the sterilization abuse is happening, but we have no idea to what degree because of the levels of secrecy and privacy these institutions hide behind. It’s difficult to uncover these abuses of power and state-sponsored violence.

It’s important to note that the retaliatory environment is so profound, not only for the people who are in prison, but also for the people who work there. Many nurses who I spoke with were not comfortable speaking on the record out of fear of losing their pensions, even though they hadn’t worked for the prison for a long time. As we see in the case with the whistleblower Dawn Wooten from the ICE detention center in Georgia, she experienced tremendous retaliation after even questioning these procedures. It’s just very difficult to know the degree to which these procedures are happening.

On top of that, you also have the levels of shame and trauma that so many survivors feel that prevent a lot of people from coming forward with their stories. I hope this film really helps address that.

How does forced sterilizations play into the issue of reproductive justice at large?

The reproductive justice movement is so important because we believe in bodily autonomy and a woman’s right to choose whether or not and when to have a family. This film is definitely a part of that conversation that it’s not just about the decision not to have a family, it’s about the choice when and how to have a family, too. When the ability to have children is taken away, it fundamentally takes away someone’s reproductive rights.

Can you talk to me about the reparations campaign that is going on right now in California?

North Carolina and Virginia passed bipartisan legislation providing reparations for historical sterilization survivors. But we need to ensure accountability for modern day instances of eugenics and forced sterilizations.

California’s legislation greatly influences other states across the country. I believe that once California passes reparations for sterilization survivors, both historical and contemporary, it will ensure that other eugenics practices, like what happened in the ICE detention center in Georgia, don’t continue to happen. We are also coming up on the 100 year anniversary of the 1927 Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell, which essentially upheld a statute instituting compulsory sterilization and set a precedent for states to legally sterilize people. That decision has yet to be overturned. We have to be examining this on a state level, a local level, as well as a national level as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Award-winning journalist covering politics, gender, race, activism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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