From Belly of the Beast (2020), dir. Erika Cohn (all images courtesy The 2050 Group)

“Are we doing a tubal ligation here?”

I recently saw that first phrase on an anti-abortion poster held by a white woman demonstrating in Washington, D.C. during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett. Meanwhile, the quote is from a doctor at Madera Community Hospital in California, asked of Kimberly Jeffrey, an incarcerated Black woman who was under anesthesia and minutes away from giving birth. “Consent” for such a drastic procedure from someone in a heavily drugged state is illegitimate; Jeffrey was subject to a forced sterilization. She is one of the many women featured in Erika Cohn’s new documentary Belly of the Beast, which investigates deplorable modern-day eugenics and reproductive injustice in California prisons. In a country where so many proudly call themselves “pro-life,” it asks a simple follow-up question: Whose lives are really protected in law?

As the film reminds us, the Nazis patterned many of their eugenics standards after those in America, particularly California scientists who sterilized around 60,000 people in the early 1900s. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is keeping up the tradition, as doctors have performed forced sterilizations on incarcerated women, mostly of color, while delivering their children. According to a 2013 report by Corey Johnson for the Center for Investigative Reporting, the state had paid almost $150,000 to these doctors over the course of 16 years, despite laws that prohibit the use of federal funds for sterilization as a means of birth control in prisons. By way of justification, Dr. James Heinrich of Madera Community Hospital told Johnson, “… that isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare.” California state audits and prison records found that between 1997 and 2013, at least 1,400 such procedures were undertaken without sound consent.

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The film has two primary protagonists: Kelli Dillon, who was sterilized without her consent while incarcerated, and Cynthia Chandler, a lawyer and co-founder of prison abolition group Justice Now — and also the one who had the heartbreaking task of telling Dillon what had been done to her, since doctors had kept it a secret. Together they fought for an official ban on sterilization as a means of birth control in prisons in California.

Belly of the Beast demonstrates how exclusionary our social myths around motherhood and giving birth are. There can be no activism around maternal health if we forget the people who are forced to give birth while handcuffed to beds. Remember the Indian Health Service sterilizing Native women during the ’60s and ’70s, the forced sterilization of Mexican women at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the same period (watch Renee Tajima-Peña’s No Más Bebés), or the recently revealed uninformed hysterectomies performed on women in ICE detention centers. It is clear that when many say they are “pro-life,” they only have a specific set of (white, well-off) people in mind.

From Belly of the Beast

Belly of the Beast is now in virtual cinemas and will premiere on Independent Lens on November 23.

Bedatri studied Literature and Cinema in New Delhi and New York, and loves writing on gender, popular culture, films, and most other things. She lives in New York, where she eats cake, binge watches reruns...