REVIEW: BELLY OF THE BEAST DOCUMENTARY
By Jeanine Morales, Deputy Director
When powerful people and institutions are able to strip away one's autonomy over their bodies and ability to choose if and when to start and raise a family, can inflict lasting harm on the lives of those with wombs, as well as our entire communities.
In the documentary Belly of the Beast, we are shown a particularly sinister example of this type of abuse of power, as it impacts an already marginalized and oppressed community, people within the California carceral system. The film touches on only one recent episode in California's long history of eugenics practiced within the state. As I watched this harrowing story unfold, I realized that this was just a glimpse into the history of reproductive oppression, in one of this country’s most liberal states; if this is happening in California,
what other dangers are hiding in the shadows, and how are these issues impacting some of our most vulnerable women and people who can become pregnant?
Although legalized slavery, the most salient manifestation of race-based mistreatment for African Americans, ended in 1865, racism persists in institutions (e.g., criminal justice system), and attitudes that marginalize African American women.*
In Belly of the Beast, a medical assistant, who only spoke anonymously, shared that there are plenty of people who believe they have a right to decide the fate of other humans. When the main subject of the film, Kelli, and her attorney face opposition to a new state law banning eugenics, we see a clear paradox: people who are entrusted to hold others accountable, yet avoid any and all responsibility for their immoral actions.
All in all, Belly of the Beast is an eloquent depiction of the inequality and brutality that exists within the American penal system.
The film begins with a young woman, Kelli, describing her personal experience of just one of the many ways women are exploited in this country. Her choice to defend the lives of her three sons and herself has the most tragic consequences. We soon find out that many other women find themselves incarcerated for simply protecting themselves from their abusers. By the time we are given the sobering statistic that over 90 percent of incarcerated women are in prison for domestic violence, it's apparent this is just one of a number of pervasive problems within our justice system.
In a system that separates parents from their children we find the stewards of their health are making sure that incarcerated women have their ability to reproduce stripped from them. We then find out that this has not only been going on for decades but that there is a systemic hierarchy of people within the healthcare industry who have absolutely no care for the health and safety of all humans. In fact, we discover their primary motivation is not life, it is saving money. The most disturbing part of the filmmaker’s look at the healthcare providers is when we discover that not one of these actual criminals will ever face punishment for their ultimate betrayal of patient trust.
The message is clear. Victims of our systems are being failed by the justice system. More so, they are still in danger. By layering the stories of their fight to ban sterilization of imprisoned people, we can clearly see how much work still needs to be done.Belly of the Beast is a timely reminder that the fight for choice is far from over. There's still a system in America that will incarcerate victims—disproportionately Black women—for defending themselves. There are still doctors and nurses and medical professionals complicit in an inhumane system that removes an individual’s e choice and bodily autonomy. The film is also a source of inspiration: the stories of people who will sacrifice everything to fight for our most vulnerable members of society, left me as a reproductive advocate, with hope, even in the belly of the beast.