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

by Bonnie A. Lucero and Elizabeth O’Brien

Medicalization after Independence

A number of studies spanning the late colonial and early republican periods highlight patriarchal continuities across the region. They also cast light on particularly modern forms of surveillance and control over women’s reproductive lives by different branches of the state and medical authorities. Cultural systems like honor, legitimacy, and purity of blood—powerful during the colonial period—continued to hold sway. For example, Nara Milanich’s chapter in Minor Omissions (mentioned above) and her monograph, Children of Fate, demonstrate how concerns of illegitimacy remained central to negotiations of family and parenthood in post-independence Chile. Similarly, in Reproduction and its Discontents in Mexico, 1750–1905, Nora Jaffary shows that ideas about honor and virginity rooted in the colonial period remained salient in medical, legal, and public policy discussions about women’s reproduction during Mexico’s early Republic. Cassia Roth’s landmark study A Miscarriage of Justice underscores the expansion of medical and legal interventions in women’s reproductive lives in early republican Brazil, where impoverished women, particularly those of African descent and those with immigrant roots, faced substantial obstacles to gaining access to expanding obstetric care, even while they also faced increasingly harsh punishments for ending pregnancies and choosing to abandon their infants or commit infanticide. Also of interest in this regard are several Portuguese-language texts, including Fabióla Rohden’s A arte de enganhar a natureza and Joana María Pedro’s Prácticas Proibidas, a volume exploring abortion and infanticide in twentieth-century Brazil. 

As Jaffary and Roth both articulate, the ongoing medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth formed part of a broader set of changes accompanying the emergence and development of republican states across the region. This process only accelerated in the mid- and late-twentieth century, as Iris López and Isabel Córdova show to be true for post-WW II Puerto Rico in their highly influential books Matters of Choice and Pushing in Silence, respectively.