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

by Bonnie A. Lucero and Elizabeth O’Brien

Family Planning

Abortion and contraception have been topics of growing investigation in the scholarship on twentieth-century Latin America. The work of Jaffary, Roth, and others show how medicalization intersected with increased criminalization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These scholars and others have underscored how competing political and social interests shape access to contraceptives.

However, issues of family planning are most dominant in the scholarship on the mid- and late twentieth century, after the development of a hormonal birth control pill in the 1950s. In Jungle Laboratories, Gabriela Soto Laveaga focuses on indigenous peasants from Mexico, who were key actors in the development of the first contraceptive pill. They unearthed, dried, and pulverized the barbasco yam before synthesizing progesterone from it. Nicole C. Bourbonnais’s Birth Control in the Decolonizing Caribbean, on the other hand, explores how working-class women in Anglophone Caribbean islands negotiated control over their reproductive lives.

Much scholarship on the twentieth century emphasizes continuity rather than change, particularly in the ongoing criminalization of abortion across much of the region. Mala Htun develops this argument in her analysis of policies affecting women and families in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile in Sex and the State. She finds that the criminalization of abortion remained strikingly persistent across different political milieus, as does Jadwiga E. Pieper Mooney in The Politics of Motherhood, which charts ongoing state restrictions on women’s agency in family planning in Chile. The persistence of abortion restrictions and of gender inequality more generally in early revolutionary Cuba, mentioned in one chapter of Rachel Hynson’s Laboring for the State and throughout Sex and Revolution by Lois M. Smith and Alfred Padula, also support this argument. Access to abortion and a range of state support for working mothers expanded dramatically, especially after 1965, but faced significant challenges following the economic crisis of the 1990s, as Elise Andaya shows in Conceiving Cuba.

Other scholars emphasize incremental change. In A History of Family Planning in Twentieth-Century Peru, Raúl Necochea López examines the competing interests of individuals, the state, and ecclesiastical authorities over a range of reproductive topics, including abortion and contraception in Peru. He suggests that access to reproductive healthcare did expand over the twentieth century, but stark inequalities in access remain. An Open Secret shifts the conventional focus on policy to center women’s voices. Therein, Natalie L. Kimball employs personal interviews alongside other sources to explore how women’s decisions about unwanted pregnancy and abortion in two Bolivian cities contributed to gradual changes in attitudes and practices toward unwanted pregnancy. Kimball’s work also charts a path for challenging modern, liberal, individualistic approaches to “rights” by centering indigenous women’s voices and showing that access to choice needs to be understood within the context of their family lives and community structures.