Focus on Making an Impact, Not Changing Building Names

“While the woman was in the throes of a contraction the doctor would say, ‘Do you want the pain killer? Then sign the papers.”

This is how Chicana women were forced to undergo tubal ligation at the L.A. County University of Southern California (USC) Medical Center in the early 1970's. According to Renee Tajima-Peña’s newest film, No Más Bébés (No More Babies), the medical center was a “border checkpoint for unborn babies” and home to the systematic sterilization of Chicana women. I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of No Más Bébés where Tajima-Peña was present a couple of weeks ago. In the ensuing Q&A session, she elaborated on the Zero Population Growth movement of the 60's and 70's. This sparked an increase of federal money that went into family planning and ultimately into the forced sterilization of women not only in L.A. but all across the country. Towards the end of the session, an audience member pointed out that Robert A. Millikan, a renowned physicist whom Pomona College’s new physics building is named after, contributed to these sterilizations through his donations to federal health institutes. 

When ten sterilized mothers took Dr. Quilligan, the county hospital obstetrician, to the federal district court in 1978, they lost their case. But almost 30 years later, Tajima-Peña presents clear evidence that shows that this ruling was unfair. To have a building named after someone who contributed to the racially motivated sterilization of women is definitely unsettling – especially considering Millikan houses a display honoring women’s achievements in physics.

When this concern was raised in the auditorium after the screening of No Más Bébés, it evoked shock and concern. But when I brought it up to a friend who had not attended the screening and wished to remain anonymous, she was less surprised. She argued that in the big picture of Millikan’s life, an indirect donation to a broad federal source was insignificant. If you considered the donor history of every famous person, you would end up with no one to name your buildings after.

As an informed onlooker, not to acknowledge Millikan's legacy in the face of the women’s suffering would be ignorant. However, this does not mean I will get offended every time I walk into Millikan. Here it is important to make a distinction between awareness and response, though some would argue that just being aware does not do justice to the women who were sterilized.

The question is one of responsibility—should we feel compelled to redeem the women of the USC-LA medical center?

Personally, I am appalled by reports of forced sterilization, and on campus, each student has issues that deeply affect them as individuals, issues they are willing to fight for. However, students will often exaggerate trivial manners to an unreasonable level, just to make a point and make their voices be heard. Though this may be an effective method of keeping issues alive, I believe it is much more beneficial to deal with problems that have a tangible impact on people's lives.

The forced sterilization of women in L.A. during the 60's and 70's is a problem. The naming of Millikan is connected to this issue, but very distantly. Though we have a moral duty to be aware of this connection, the fight for the rights of minority women on campus should focus on bigger issues. For example, the Health Bridges Program at Pomona Valley Hospital runs a program that engages with this issue. Lathan Liou PO ’19 elaborated on the work he does for this program:

“I help low-income patients with limited English proficiency, mostly women, navigate the healthcare system. I enroll them in temporary healthcare coverage by acting as a translator, so that the patients know what they are signing up for.” Health Bridges thus works to resolve the issue of uninformed consent with non-English speaking women.

This, in my opinion, is a much more effective way of addressing the disadvantages minority women face in the American healthcare system than spending time getting offended at the naming of a building. Though we should be aware of nuances within an issue, we should also focus our energy on responses that really make a change.

Laura Haetzel PO '19 intends to major in chemistry with a concentration in biochemistry.

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