Erika Cohn is one of those filmmakers who is actually using a platform to create substantial change with her docu Belly of the Beast, which uncovered nearly 1,400 questionable sterilizations in California prisons during labor or unrelated abdominal surgeries between 1997-2013.
It was announced that on Tuesday, California Governor Gavin Newsom is expected to announce final passage and signing of landmark reparations for the modern-day eugenics and reproductive injustices in California state prisons exposed in the PBS documentary which has been re-released and will stream for free on PBS.org through July 31.
This will make California the first state to both provide notification of coerced sterilization and reparations to survivors who were sterilized while incarcerated in its state women’s prisons and the third state in the nation to provide monetary compensation to survivors who were sterilized under state eugenics laws.
Belly of the Beast was released in 2020 and helped garner nearly 20,000 signatures on a petition to Governor Newsom demanding reparations for California forced sterilization survivors.
“I’m thrilled Belly of the Beast contributed to this historic moment and we will continue to shine a light on our nation’s dark past until these heinous practices are eradicated,” says director/producer Erika Cohn.
“To this day, many survivors who were sterilized while in prison still don’t know that their reproductive capacities were stolen from them. With the launch of reparations, we will finally receive justice that we have fought so long for and the healing process can truly begin. It’s time,” said Kelli Dillon, founder of Back to the Basics, sterilization survivor, and film participant.
Between 1909 and 1979, California sterilized at least 20,000 people under State law — accounting for one third of eugenics sterilizations nationwide. People with disabilities, Latinas, women, and poor people were disproportionately targeted for sterilization. Although the State repealed its eugenics law in 1979, coerced and forced sterilizations continued in State prisons into the 2010’s.
“Lack of government accountability for its eugenic past made possible the contemporary sterilization abuse in California prisons. Reparations for survivors is a giant step toward accountability and ensuring we end eugenic State violence against families of color,” said film participant and attorney Cynthia Chandler, who has led efforts for reparations for imprisoned survivors.
The film also included the Mary J. Blige song “See What You’ve Done” which was included on the shortlist for original song. “I was moved by Erika Cohn’s important documentary Belly of the Beast,” said Blige. “I immediately knew I wanted to be involved and was inspired to write a song that would amplify the voices of women in prison. ‘See What You’ve Done’ is a testimony, a call to be strong, and an anthem for a movement.”
Governor Newson’s anticipated budget includes funding for the reparations program. The budget request and accompanying bill, AB1007, was authored by California Assembly member Wendy Carrillo. Cynthia, Kelli and the Belly of the Beast team are a part of a larger cross-movement coalition for reparations including the AB1007 sponsors, Back to the Basics, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund.
Watch the trailer below.