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Erika Cohn’s documentary “Belly of the Beast,” which depicts the fight to ban non-consensual sterilizations performed on female prisoners in California, is at once a thrilling legal drama and heartbreaking depiction of devastating human rights violations that you can’t imagine happening in the 21st century. Unfortunately, as news recently broke about alleged forced sterilizations performed in ICE detention centers, the film is also all too timely, and a powerful argument for women’s reproductive autonomy.
What makes “Belly of the Beast” so compelling isn’t just the issue at hand. At the center of her film, Cohn has several incredible subjects one can’t help but fantasize about casting for a narrative adaptation. At the heart of the story is Kelli Dillon, a Los Angeles-based domestic violence counselor and gang interventionist, who was the victim of nonconsensual sterilization while serving time in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Kelli, who killed her abusive husband in self-defense and in defense of her children, knew she would not be present for her sons’ childhood while imprisoned, and she hoped to meet someone and have more kids upon release. During a surgery to have ovarian cysts removed, prison doctors performed a hysterectomy without her consent. Upon experiencing symptoms of surgical menopause, and realizing that other women in prison were having similar procedures, Kelli wrote to the Oakland-based prison abolition organization Justice Now for help.
Enter our other heroine, Cynthia Chandler, a Philly punk rock kid-turned-lawyer, known for wearing wild shoes to prison to bring some levity to the environment when visiting clients. Upon reading Dillon’s medical documents, Cynthia is the one to inform Kelli exactly what happened to her on that operating table, and together, they take their mission to stop the practice and seek justice for the other women all the way to the top of the California legislature.
There’s also journalist Corey Johnson of the Center for Investigative Reporting who cracks the story wide open when he visits Dr. James Heinrich, who performed many of these procedures, and who remarks to Johnson that these sterilizations are “cheaper than welfare,” a pernicious belief unfortunately held by many who have decision-making power in this system.
Though “Belly of the Beast” moves swiftly, the film covers a years-long process, following both Kelli’s personal lawsuit, including a brutal deposition (and in which she won no damages), and the progress of SB1135, prohibiting sterilization as a form of birth control in prisons.
Kelli is hesitant to go through traumatizing testimony again, but she’s committed to the justice that she and so many other women deserve. In a system that continually dehumanizes prisoners, even after they’ve paid their debt to society, her powerful words at the Capitol makes the bill personal and humanizes the necessity for its eventual passage by the California legislature.
The issue at hand in “Belly of the Beast” is justice, but it’s also choice. What Kelli and Cynthia fight for is a woman’s right to always choose what to do with her body, and the choice to have children or not is up to her and her alone, without the overreaching influence of the government. It’s a fight that seems never-ending, one that’s too important to give up.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.