Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico: Childbirth and Contraception from 1750 to 1905

Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico: Childbirth and Contraception from 1750 to 1905

Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico: Childbirth and Contraception from 1750 to 1905

Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico: Childbirth and Contraception from 1750 to 1905

Synopsis

In this history of childbirth and contraception in Mexico, Nora E. Jaffary chronicles colonial and nineteenth-century beliefs and practices surrounding conception, pregnancy and its prevention, and birth. Tracking Mexico's transition from colony to nation, Jaffary demonstrates the central role of reproduction in ideas about female sexuality and virtue, the development of modern Mexico, and the growth of modern medicine in the Latin American context.

The story encompasses networks of people in all parts of society, from state and medical authorities to mothers and midwives, husbands and lovers, employers and neighbors. Jaffary focuses on key topics including virginity, conception, contraception and abortion, infanticide, "monstrous" births, and obstetrical medicine. Her approach yields surprising insights into the emergence of modernity in Mexico. Over the course of the nineteenth century, for example, expectations of idealized womanhood and female sexual virtue gained rather than lost importance. In addition, rather than being obliterated by European medical practice, features of pre-Columbian obstetrical knowledge, especially of abortifacients, circulated among the Mexican public throughout the period under study. Jaffary details how, across time, localized contexts shaped the changing history of reproduction, contraception, and maternity.

Excerpt

In mid-nineteenth-century Mexico, women’s reproductive practices became a matter of intense public concern. In this period, two decades after Mexico had severed political ties with imperial Spain and embarked upon the foundation of its own legal and medical institutions, residents of small rural communities and large cities alike began to scrutinize when and if women of all classes became pregnant and how their pregnancies ended. In a small community in Coixtlahuaca, Oaxaca, in 1845, for example, sixty-one-year-old Fernando Mendoza, who described himself as both a laborer and a “fiscal actual del pueblo” (a lay assistant to the parish priest), began publicly confronting a young woman, Thomasa Maldonado, about her recent pregnancy. Mendoza declared that the local curate had engaged him “to keep vigil over [velar y ver]” women in his community and so he had repeatedly demanded that Maldonado explain to him if she was or had been pregnant, and by whom. He informed his town’s chief constable, and eventually a justice of the peace, that he had known Maldonado was pregnant because he had observed it “with his own eyes since they were very immediate neighbors.” Both Maldonado and her parents initially denied the pregnancy but upon Mendoza’s insistence, Maldonado eventually conceded that she had been pregnant but had secretly buried the stillborn child. Mendoza and some other witnesses suspected, however, that she had in fact killed her newborn. An overseeing judge in the district of Teposcolula conducted a short investigation into her alleged crime of infanticide, but eventually absolved Maldonado, citing insufficient evidence.

Thomasa Maldonado’s experiences, like those of the hundreds of women whose stories are traced across the colonial period and through the nineteenth century in the chapters that follow, exemplify several issues central to the history of conception and contraception in the modernizing Mexican republic. First, Maldonado’s example illustrates one of this book’s primary arguments: that the emergence of a changing discourse of sexual honor and public virtue became more imperative for an . . .

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