Director Erika Cohn’s new film, Belly of the Beast, part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival which goes digital in the U.S. from June 11 to 20, brings to the fore the undeniable and continued legacy of eugenics and forced sterilization in the state of California.
The documentary follows the case of Kelli Dillon, a black mother who was told she had cysts and needed surgery while incarcerated, only to discover, over a year later and after months of menopausal symptoms and extreme weight loss at the age of 24, that she had been given a hysterectomy (Dillon’s doctors never told her they had performed a hysterectomy on her). Risking retaliation, Dillon decided to speak out even while she was still in jail and teamed up with the prison abolition legal aid organization Justice Now, founded by attorney Cynthia Chandler, to find justice. Belly of the Beast is about the freedom work Dillon, Chandler, and the Justice Now team—whose board members are all currently incarcerated women—do against all odds in the service of female survivors of all kinds of violence, not just at home but from the state.
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In the U.S., many regular people still believe in eugenics, particularly when it comes to the country’s enormous incarcerated population, and especially when those people are poor black women. This makes sense because the practice of eugenics was pioneered in California beginning with a 1909 law that sanctioned the sterilization of those deemed “unfit,” from poor black and Native mothers to people with mental and physical disabilities to the criminalized. In fact the Nazis borrowed their eugenics project from the U.S. and the state of California specifically. Much of what American schoolchildren are taught are evils that originated in the sick minds of Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels in fact were first practiced by their own state officials.