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

by Bonnie A. Lucero and Elizabeth O’Brien


Related to the scholarship on medicalization is another body of research on population politics in post-emancipation and republican societies. In the Caribbean and across Latin America, eugenics exerted powerful influence over state approaches to pregnancy and reproduction. In her now-classic text The Hour of Eugenics, Nancy Leys Stepan shows how both Mendelian and Lamarckian schools of hereditarian thought shaped public policy in Latin America, giving rise to eugenic policies—like pre-nuptial certificates—as well as a heightened focus on state-led maternal and infant welfare campaigns. These findings have inspired a generation of scholarship that investigates the way eugenics shaped specific geographic contexts and areas of medicine, legislation, national ideologies, and state policy.

One of the important outgrowths of this research focuses on eugenics, family planning, and control over women’s sexuality in imperial and borderlands contexts. Laura Briggs develops this line of inquiry in Reproducing Empire, specifically focusing on Puerto Rico under US rule from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries. Reproducing Empire analyzes how reproduction was central to US imperial policies concerning population control during the first half of the twentieth century, and includes chapters on abortion, contraception, and sterilization. Focusing specifically on US-occupied and neocolonial Cuba, En busca de la raza perfecta, by Armando García González and Raquel Alvarez Pelaez, explores the ways eugenic policies emerged in medical literature during a time of intermittent US military occupation and neocolonial control. It includes chapters on maternal and infant welfare, abortion, and sterilization. In Eugenic Nation, Alexandra Minna Stern shows how eugenics remained influential in the US–Mexico borderlands and in US-occupied territories through the late-twentieth century, a period conventionally thought to have witnessed the retreat of state-sponsored eugenic ideas.

A growing number of studies explore the institutionalization of public health and welfare initiatives, including those targeting infants and mothers, which emerged across the region in the late nineteenth century and especially in the early twentieth century. Juanita De Barros examines such policies in Reproducing the British Caribbean, showing how maternal and infant welfare was intimately connected to anxieties about population in the post-emancipation British Caribbean, including Jamaica, Guyana, and Barbados. In The Right to Live in Health, Daniel Rodríguez explores the role of physicians in the making of the Cuban state and includes a chapter on public health initiatives to combat infant mortality. Okezi Otovo’s Progressive Mothers, Better Babies documents state involvement in the supervision and management of motherhood in Bahia, Brazil, through the discourse of maternalism. A similar exploration of motherhood as a site of public intervention emerges in Alejandra Ramm and Jasmine Gideon’s Motherhood, Social Policies and Women’s Activism in Latin America, a volume focused primarily on Chile. Kim Clark’s Gender, State, and Medicine in Highland Ecuador situates state interventions in child welfare within broader initiatives targeting women in the realms of midwifery, prostitution regulation, and nursing. Several other studies, including Compromised Positions by Katherine Elaine Bliss, Modernity in the Flesh by Kristin Ruggiero, and Eileen Findlay’s Imposing Decency, primarily address prostitution regulation in Mexico, Argentina, and Puerto Rico, respectively. These texts also include discussions related to gynecology, pregnancy, contraception, and sexual morality.