A film that was shot over seven years, called the ‘Belly of the Beast’ uncovered a disturbing practice of tubal ligations in California.
In 2001 Kelli Dillon was a prisoner in Central California Women’s Facility when she started experiencing pain in her stomach.
A doctor, suspecting ovarian cysts, ordered a biopsy, but after the procedure, Kelli Dillon began having heart palpitations and night sweats, and her periods ceased.
The doctor had not only removed the cysts, but he’d also taken out her ovaries and she had been sterilised at the age of 24.
‘Belly of the Beast’, a documentary directed by Erika Cohn, chronicles Kelli Dillon’s brutal experience, which was shot over seven years, and which also follows Cynthia Chandler, the co-founder of Justice Now, an advocacy group for women prisoners, as the pair sought legal and financial redress.
Kelli Dillon’s discovery that a dozen other women in the prison had also been sterilised was the catalyst for further investigation by the group and later by Corey Johnson of the Centre for Investigative Reporting, a think tank.
Corey Johnson discovered evidence of 148 instances between 2006 and 2010 in which doctors in two prisons had performed unauthorised tubal ligations, the permanent blockage or removal of the fallopian tubes on prisoners.
Some women said that they were pressed to get the procedure, which was frequently added onto surgeries such as caesarean sections, others weren’t properly informed about what would take place.
Dr James Heinrich, who performed many of the procedures, told Corey Johnson he had been saving the state from having to pay welfare for unwanted children.
After the story broke, California’s lawmakers held hearings, at which both Ms Dillon and Ms Chandler testified and prohibited sterilisation as a form of birth control in prisons in 2014.
Data from a state audit, and prison records compiled by journalists working with Ms Cohn, revealed that between 1997 and 2013 nearly 1,400 women were sterilised while imprisoned in Californian correctional institutions.
‘Belly of the Beast’ was a difficult film to make and would-be financial backers initially found the premise preposterous and Ms Cohn had little access to her sources in prison and it was difficult to get access to records because some of the pivotal events had already occurred behind bars.
They decided to carefully reconstruct each memory, each moment, each constricted space, she said as she incorporated those into a compelling narrative with an assortment of interviews and archival footage.
This is all extremely horrific, totally unacceptable and illegal and nothing more than a concentration camp for women.
These women will suffer long term consequences for who knows how long throughout their lives.
Where were these women’s human rights? And it’s eugenics all over again.
Ms Cohn claims that the procedures were not an anomaly and that in the 20th-century eugenics programmes were standard in America and of the more than 30 states that enforced them, California was the biggest, with some 20,000 people forcibly sterilised between 1909 and 1979.
The programmes targeted people for reasons such as being feeble-minded, immoral or an addict, and frequently singled out ethnic minorities.
Virginia, which was second only to California in the number of people it sterilised, also continued with the policy until 1979, and more than a fifth of its approximately 8,000 victims was African American.