- Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico; Childbirth and Contraception from 1750 to 1905 by Nora E. Jaffary
Nora Jaffary's insightful and richly-researched study of conception, reproduction, pregnancy, and its termination dovetails with arguments regarding the transition from colonial Latin America to the establishment of independent republics. Elizabeth Dore (Dore and Molyneux, 2000) has argued that nineteenth-century political liberalism, secularism, and emphasis on the rights of the individual did not, as a contemporary feminist viewpoint might hope to argue, imply improvement in women's status. Rather than an arc towards increased autonomy, women in Latin America saw their economic, legal, and social status restricted during the nineteenth century. Such was the case, for example, for widows seeking child support and who were less and less likely to encounter courts that found in their favor (Nara Milanich, 2009). As independence movements swept across Latin America and new republics came into being state makers, legislators, physicians, lawyers, and justices construed reproduction as central to developing a healthy, disciplined citizenry. Controlling women's bodies was a means to those ends. Jaffary contributes to this discussion by attending to the crossclass and cross-cultural dynamics that characterized these processes.
Jaffary takes a balanced approach within polarized debates over the history of modern obstetrical medicine. While some consider modern medicine a positive and progressively more sophisticated practice, others view it as having led to disastrous consequences. The latter view argues that with the displacement of midwives, women lost control over their own bodies and faced a decline in conceptions of women's status. Regional studies have found this to be the case in Michoacán (Ana María Kapelusz-Poppi, 2006), Jalisco (Laura Catalina Díaz Robles and Luciano Oropeza Sandoval, 2007), and Central Mexico (Ana María Carillo, 1999). In Mexico, as European medical culture (male) spread it displaced pre-existing indigenous traditions (female). Jaffary shows, nevertheless, that midwives continued to attend the great majority of births. Midwives held a rich knowledge base and provided services around conception, pregnancy, termination of pregnancies, and delivery. Pre-conquest Nahua knowledge of plant (altamisa and cihuapatli) and animal substances was used to encourage or impede conception and to reinitiate menstruation (i.e., terminate a pregnancy). Midwives employed the temezcal (sweat lodge) and external manipulation of the [End Page 933] fetus to correctly position them for birth. At the same time, Jaffary also argues that experts who introduced the use of forceps did so with extreme caution and out of concern for the lives of women in childbirth.
Discourses of sexual honor and public virtue became more powerful and widespread by the late-nineteenth century. During the colonial period the population of New Spain projected preoccupations with controlling reproduction primarily upon elite Spanish women due to concerns regarding the physical reproduction of suitable heirs, especially as defined by racial categories. Ideas about virginity were rooted in religious values more than biological or medical knowledge. Indeed, many medical texts concluded that virginity could not be proven by a physical examination and other criteria were needed. Virginity was defined socially and was often contingent upon social status. The opinion of acquaintances, family members, and servants could contribute to determining a woman's virginity in the colonial era. Jaffary argues that for a substantial portion of the population virginity was not a priority, which explains the prevalence of sexual activity outside the confines of marriage and high rates of illegitimacy. Over the course of the nineteenth century growing sectors of Mexican women came under scrutiny regarding the preservation of their virginity. The Porfiriato (1876-1911) saw increasing concern over the sexuality of women of the popular classes and experts turned to scientific analysis of the hymen as a way to control women's reproduction. The medical and criminological professions sought to counter crime, disease, alcoholism, and drug addiction, all of which they understood as threats to the nation. Increased scrutiny of women's sexual conduct was also integral to practices of class distinction.