During the pre-Columbian and colonial periods, Andean cosmological understandings shaped indigenous approaches to maternal health. Women typically gave birth at home with the assistance of a midwife (also called a partera or comadrona in Spanish). Birthing and post-partum care relied on local herbal remedies and followed specific social rituals. Women drank teas derived from anise or coca during the labor process, gave birth in a squatting position (toward Mother Earth, or Pachamama), and drank sheep soup after labor to replenish strength and warm the body. Rooms were kept dark because the common perception was that bright light injured newborn babies’ eyes. After labor, families buried or otherwise disposed of the placenta to keep the baby and mother healthy and facilitate lactation, as per Andean tradition. Changes in maternal health rituals began in the 18th century, as colonial rule became more consolidated. The rise of a distinct medical profession and government interest in population growth gradually shifted responsibility for maternal health from the Catholic Church and charitable organizations to the state. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the growing power and authority of the state and the medical profession led doctors and urban-based reformers to attempt to change long-standing Andean birthing practices, which they considered archaic and unsanitary. These reforms emerged from a desire to reduce infant mortality rates and to replace traditional healers with medical professionals who were trained, licensed, and regulated by the state. As reformers looked to replace Andean maternal health and healing practices with new scientific understandings of the female body and birthing process, they also worked to discredit and displace midwives’ knowledge and practices. In particular, they encouraged women to give birth in newly constructed hospitals and to seek the guidance of medical professionals, like obstetricians. However, these reforms met with limited success. In the Andes today, midwives still attend to roughly 50 percent of all births, and in some remote areas, the figure is as high as 90 percent. It is also more common today to see the merging of biomedical and ritual practices to increase women’s access to and acceptance of health services and to reduce overall mortality rates.
Nicole L. Pacino
Today, the death of women during pregnancy, childbirth or postpartum is considered simultaneously a public health, social inequality, and gender discrimination problem. In Mexico, approximately one thousand women die each year during pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum or from an unsafe abortion, experiencing a premature and sudden death in the midst of their most productive years, often with lasting consequences for their families and surviving children. As elsewhere, the great majority of these deaths would not have occurred if women had had prompt and unlimited access to quality emergency obstetric care, as well as easy access to contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Most deaths are related to the substandard quality of available maternal healthcare services; services that are provided for free to most Mexican women in an overly saturated and underfunded public health system that also tends to overmedicalize and pathologize normal births. Their prematurity and abruptness, their occurrence in the process of giving life, the fact that these deaths exclusively affect women, and their avoidable nature make maternal mortality unacceptable in today’s social, political, and ethical arenas. From an historical perspective, deaths in childbirth were much more common in past centuries than today; these deaths were considered inevitable and were accepted as natural occurrences until the late 19th century. However, surrounding rituals, the meaning attached to these deaths, related notions of womanhood and motherhood, and practices to prevent or avoid them, underwent changes according to broader sociocultural, political and religious transformations from Pre-Hispanic times to the 20th century. As elsewhere, in Mexico maternal deaths declined considerably in the 1930s–1950s with the discovery of penicillin and the concomitant decline of puerperal fever; they reached a plateau in the 1960s and 1970s and began to slowly decline again in the 1980s–1990s with an even steeper decrease after the signature of the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals in the year 2000; time when the reduction of maternal mortality became one of eight high-priority global public policy objectives, closely monitored by UN bodies. Maternal deaths are a reflection of ingrained multiple social inequalities that characterize Mexican society at large; poor, rural, marginalized and Indigenous pregnant women face a 2–10 times higher risk of dying than the rest of Mexican women, because their access to contraception and to prompt and high quality obstetric emergency care is more limited. Today, research in the field of maternal mortality etiology, measurement and reduction includes the call for women-centered respectful maternal care, the elimination of discrimination in the provision of obstetric services and the application of a human rights perspective to health policies, programs, and care.