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Histories of Women’s Reproduction in Latin America and the Caribbean: Medicalization

by Bonnie A. Lucero and Elizabeth O’Brien


A second area of research on the colonial period examines medicalization projects, especially those that took place under the late Bourbon governance of Carlos III and Carlos IV. One line of this investigation has explored how the early emergence of professional physicians coincided with efforts to displace midwives through regulation and criminalization. While tension between physicians and midwives is not unique to colonial Latin America, scholars have underscored the unique racial dynamics of medicalization in the Americas, where midwives were most often women of indigenous and African descent. Martha Few details precisely this paradigm in All of Humanity in a discussion of efforts by colonial elites to control and stigmatize indigenous midwives and healers. “Tensions of Race, Gender and Midwifery in Colonial Cuba,” Michele Reid-Vázquez’s contribution to the volume Africans to Colonial Spanish America, similarly exposes these racialized and gendered dynamics of midwifery in nineteenth-century Cuba. This theme also emerges in parts of Reid-Vázquez’s The Year of the Lash, Aisha K. Finch’s Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba, and María del Cármen Barcia Zequeira’s Oficios de mujer. Although the displacement and marginalization of women of color midwives began during the colonial period, it persisted through the twentieth century, as scholars like Nora Jaffary, Cassia Roth, and others discussed below have shown.

More recently, scholars have examined the intersections of Catholicism, religion, and the development of medical knowledge. One notable example is Baptism through Incision from Martha Few, Zeb Tortorici, and Adam Warren, which introduces readers to the role of priests in performing cesarean surgeries on women presumed to be deceased, extracting fetuses for the purposes of baptism. The text also contains translations of key primary sources on the topic, namely priests’ writings intended to instruct others on how to perform the surgery and baptism. Additional primary source translations on midwifery and fertility control appear in the collection Women in Colonial Latin America, 1526 to 1806. Focused more generally on the broader field of medicine, Adam Warren’s Medicine and Politics in Colonial Peru probes how control over medical knowledge and care shifted between religious and secular authorities from the colonial period to the early years after independence.