Abortion and reproductive health have not been absent from studies of medicine in Mexico. Yet Nora Jaffary’s ambitious project reframes this scholarship by examining the relationships between women and their communities. In doing so, it challenges traditional narratives of Mexican history through a careful study of the development of obstetrical practices from 1750-1905. First, the study sheds doubt on the idea that independence, and the liberal reforms institutionalized in its wake, ushered in an era of positive social change for women. The book’s principal argument is that over the nineteenth century, the sexual and reproductive practices of plebian women came under an unprecedented level of social scrutiny, as motherhood and nation became further articulated through reproduction. Second, the analysis disrupts the prevailing portrait of the male medical profession encroaching on the female domain of child delivery. While male doctors did attend births more frequently following a 1750 reform, unlicensed midwives delivered the majority of Mexican children well into the twentieth century. And finally, her study calls attention to the role of public perception in shaping reproductive health regulations. Individual denunciations made by community members, rather than state-initiated censures, were far more prevalent than has previously been acknowledged. The book is divided into three sections reflecting central concepts through which society approached conception and contraception over time. In part one, on virginity, Jaffary examines the ways in which medical education and the developing field of hymenology shaped beliefs about the bodies of Mexican women. Using obstetrical texts and midwifery guides, alongside court testimonies, she demonstrates that, despite medical advancements, physicians remained ambivalent about the hymen as a credible source to indicate virginity. In turn, judges relied more on the expert testimonies of midwives and public opinion, influenced by statements given by acquaintances, family members, and servants to determine the outcome of court trials. Jaffary identifies the same correlation for marital suits initiated by women who sought compensation for their virginity when it was lost under the promise of marriage. Part two covers contraception and abortion and is arguably the book’s greatest intervention. Analyzing the abortion and infanticide cases brought to Mexico City’s Tribunal Superior de Justicia del Distrito Federal, Jaffary identifies a striking increase in denunciations made against women for both of these crimes. Rather than read this shift as evidence of the vigilance of the Porfirian surveillance state, she argues it reflects changing popular conceptions of maternity and female honor. Her analysis pivots around the Spanish Penal Code of 1870, which mitigated the severity of sentences for those convicted of infanticide and abortion. She proposes that in the case of abortion, community authorities and even female peers likely grew more comfortable investigating suspicious behavior, since the resulting punishment was no longer death. Jaffary posits a similar explanation for the increase in infanticide trials. Later cases were initiated following individual denunciations. In earlier cases, however, it took the discovery of a newborn corpse to initiate a court trial, suggesting that during the late colonial period, infanticide was likely more tolerated. This shift, she argues, indicates a change in community members’ perceived obligation to police such practices. Jaffary also addresses the role of medical examiners, called upon by judges, as expert witnesses to determine when the child in question had died. Like pelvic examinations carried out in rape cases, these medical tests were submitted as trial evidence but did not seem to determine the outcome of the case. Indeed, Jaffary argues that judicial authorities rarely found such evidence compelling enough for a conviction, indicating that for the crime of infanticide, anecdotal evidence of efforts made to protect one’s public reputation, such as hiding one’s pregnancy, was the best way to secure a mild sentence. She argues that the courts were less concerned with punishing those accused of breaking the law than in maintaining the public face of female honor, and with it, its centrality to the foundation of familial stability. Jaffary’s method of reading legal codes suggests one way for exploring the intimate lives of working class Mexicans. Rather than focusing on the law itself, her method reveals Mexicans’ proclivity to scrutinize one another’s behavior and therefore produce criminal records. Part three considers popular and scientific understandings of routine and “monstrous” births. Targeting announcements of unusual newborns in colonial and national newspapers, Jaffary identifies a shift in perception towards the unnatural. Explanations of monstrosity began to invoke internal factors, as opposed to external catalysts such as divine or climactic intervention. This shift reflected the increased interest in women’s reproductive anatomy to understand embryonic development. Jaffary demonstrates how these intellectual preoccupations with deviancy reinforced particular ideals of normalcy, while simultaneously pathologizing the bodies of all Mexican women. This section is methodologically unique; not only does it analyze medical journals and newspapers, it also incorporates pastoral letters. This offers a more nuanced view of the influence of religious expression on reproductive health. Such letters offer insight into routine birthing practices, particularly through cesarean section manuals. These guides were introduced during the colonial era at the behest of priests hoping to ensure the baptism of fetuses likely to die in childbirth. Although the medical establishment embraced the operation, Jaffary argues that such surgical interventions were quite rare. Jaffary’s search on abortion and infanticide in the archives of the archdiocese proved fruitless but further research into nineteenth-century church records could reveal additional connections between medicine and religion that persisted through independence. It appears that religious documentary evidence is limited almost exclusively to the late colonial era. This uneven approach to documentary genres is a methodological point worth considering as future studies continue to break with traditional periodization beginning or ending with independence. Indeed, one might ask what is particularly “early modern” about the social, medical, and legal infrastructures analyzed in this study. It is unclear, for example, to what extent colonialism and its governing strategies shaped the conditions of reproductive health that the republic of Mexico inherited. Despite these methodological queries, this study relies on extensive archival research and is an important contribution to the history of medicine in Mexico. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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