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
Alexandra Minna Stern
Eugenics emerged in Latin America in the early 20th century on the intellectual foundations of 19th-century social Darwinism and positivism, and expanded in contexts influenced by Catholicism, nationalism, and transnational scientific exchange. Although the extent and objectives of eugenic policies, practices, and organizations varied across the region, Latin American eugenicists tended to subscribe to neo-Lamarckian principles of environmental modification, foreground puericulture or infant and maternal care, and support new techniques of human measurement associated with biotypology. Overall, eugenics in Latin America was less extreme than in Anglo and Nordic countries, rarely resulting in sanctioned policies of compulsory sterilization or euthanasia. It was an integral component of programs designed to combat infectious ailments, especially sexually transmitted diseases, and to ameliorate national health indicators. This overlap meant that eugenics sometimes was less visible as a stand-alone movement, and that its tenets were absorbed with little friction into public health and social welfare infrastructures and campaigns. At the same time, eugenic racism was expressed in calls for immigration restriction that reverberated across Latin America, most notably in the 1910s and 1920s. In retrospect, eugenics in Latin America contributed both to exclusionary policies that stigmatized certain social groups and to overarching campaigns for health and wellness that were backed by a diverse political spectrum that could include feminists, Socialists, and military leaders.
Sterilization is an increasingly familiar phenomenon to women worldwide, and it is the most prevalent contraceptive practice in the world. Costa Rica, where the use of contraceptives is generalized, is among those countries in the world with the highest prevalence of female sterilization. In Costa Rica, female sterilization is homogeneously distributed, common among women living in rural and urban zones, as well as among those of diverse educational levels. In contrast to what one may expect given the legacy of abusive birth control practices in Latin America, the “problem” of sterilization in Costa Rica has been framed by women and doctors alike not as the “need” for curbing its use but rather as a “struggle” for broadening access as much as possible. Interestingly, current rates of sterilization have been attained in the absence of a formal program offering sterilization for contraceptive purposes and in the context of a very restrictive legal framework for its provision. It was not until July 1999 that sterilization for contraceptive purposes was explicitly regulated and permitted. Before that year, it was only so-called therapeutic sterilization that was legally allowed. Sterilization was supposed to be offered only for health reasons. Notably, successive moves intended precisely to broaden access to this surgery within the state hospital system have been realized through regulation formally restricting its provision. This sometimes counterintuitive history of the provision and regulation of sterilization in Costa Rica is analyzed.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, numerous academics and non-governmental organizations based in the United States generated alarm about political and ecological threats posed by human population growth. During the first half of the 20th century, improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and medical therapies had dramatically reduced infant mortality and contributed to increased life expectancy in many parts of the world. In the context of the Cold War, many leaders of Western industrialized nations viewed the rapid growth of poor Asian, African, and Latin American populations as a potential source of political instability. They feared that these poor masses would become fodder for revolutionary political movements, particularly communism. Combined with eugenicist views rooted in colonial racism, new understanding of ecological systems, and growing concern about overtaxing earth’s resources, these fears led many American and European scholars and activists to promote population reduction in the newly designated “Third World.” In Latin America, such efforts to curb human increase were met with skepticism or outright opposition by both Catholic Church leaders and many left-wing nationalists who saw the promotion of birth control as a form of racist imperialism. Although some physicians and even liberal priests viewed decreasing family size as important for public health and family welfare, the involvement of North American capitalists (such as the Rockefellers), U.S. government agencies, and former eugenicists in efforts to distribute contraceptive technologies made them deeply suspect in the eyes of many Latin Americans.