During the opening of Belly of the Beast, Kelli Dillon remembers her final moments with her young sons before she was forcibly separated from them. She recalls the smell of their breath, the feel of their skin. The reminiscence is all the more heartbreaking knowing that Dillon can’t have any more children—a decision that was made for her, not by her.
Dillon was sent to prison in 2008 for killing her abusive husband. While serving time at the Central California Women’s Facility, she underwent forced sterilization after being told she had an abnormal pap smear and needed a cone biopsy to check if she had cancer.
The doctor told the then-24-year-old she might have a cyst on her ovary and asked her if she wanted to have more children. Dillon recounts telling him that while she already had two sons, she wouldn’t be around to raise them because she was in prison, so she did hope to have more children after she left. The doctor then asked if she wanted a hysterectomy if she turned out to have cancer. Dillon says yes, though only if it was cancer.
Dillon didn’t have cancer. But unbeknownst to her, the doctor did perform a hysterectomy. “I had been intentionally sterilized,” says Dillon in the new documentary Belly of the Beast, which opened earlier this month across the country and will air on PBS next month.
Dillon was not the only one. An investigation by Dillon and her lawyer, Cynthia Chandler, uncovered evidence of many women subjected to forced sterilization at the Central California Women’s Facility. It wasn’t until the Center for Investigative Reporting got involved that people began taking the allegations seriously.
“Whenever you’re fighting human rights abuses in prison, you never know what to expect,” notes the film, which is produced by Angela Tucker.
Director and producer Erika Cohn documented Dillon and Chandler’s fight against the system in Beast, providing counterpoints to doctors and prison officials who argued in court that the surgeries provided a social benefit and were in the women’s best interests.
Cohn met Chandler, the co-founder of the Oakland nonprofit Justice Now, through a mutual friend. “I heard about the illegal sterilization primarily targeting women of color, and it really screamed eugenics to me,” says Cohn. “I’m a Jewish woman. The phrase ‘never again’ is always profoundly in the back of my mind. I initially joined as a volunteer legal advocate and from there began collaborating on Belly of the Beast.”
The film’s release coincides with recent accusations by a whistleblower that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement performed unnecessary hysterectomies at a Georgia detention center.
“I hope people will see from this film that we are witnessing systemic racism and population control, which, along with lack of access to healthcare during the pandemic, is part of a broader conversation. We need calls for accountability,” Cohn says.
Cohn notes that when she began making the film, many people didn’t believe her when she told them what was happening, despite “hundreds of testimonials.” By Cohn’s calculations, nearly 1,400 sterilizations took place from 1997 to 2013.
Beast also features a new song from Mary J. Blige, “See What You’ve Done,” recorded for the film.
“She told us, ‘I’m so beyond struck by the power of seeing what you’ve done’ that she decided to be the musical voice of the film,” Cohn says. “It was amazing.”
Source: Forbes – Business