The religious history of caesarean section and what it means for the battle against abortion | Remark

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This Women’s History Month marks a sobering historic milestone: According to the Guttmacher Institute, 2021 was “the worst legislative year ever for abortion rights in the United States,” and Roe v . Wade could be canceled at any time.

Efforts to restrict abortion often focus on slippery questions about early life and what constitutes the personality of the fetus. Catholic authorities arguably led the charge from the mid-18th century to the present day, as a long line of popes and their subordinates have made the protection of unborn life a cornerstone of church philosophy.

But this has not always been the case. In fact, the positions of the Catholic Church on fetal life have changed throughout history. It wasn’t actually until 1869 that Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) removed the long-standing distinction between “animated” and “non-animated” fetuses and then declared abortion to merit excommunication. . Previously, influential thinkers had accepted the long-held Aristotelian idea that the unborn child first had a vegetable soul, then, in the middle of pregnancy, a sentient soul, and only after birth did it have a soul. rational human.

The caesarean operation also played a role in forming these assertions about unborn life. Despite their lack of medical training, priests became surgeons in the 18th century. They have performed hundreds of C-section surgeries to advance the religious notion that unborn children have souls early in pregnancy. Pre-modern surgery, colonial violence, and theological mandates are therefore all central to the fetal personality debate.

After 1749 and until the end of Spanish colonial rule, authorities throughout the Americas required Catholic priests to perform Caesarean sections on dead and dying women. Caesarean section operation was extremely rare at the time, as there was no reliable pain control and antibiotics would not be developed for another century, which meant that the infection was almost impossible to control. Before that time, surgery was performed only as a last resort when the child could not be born without intervention and the mother’s life was already lost.

Yet in the 18th century, priests were not primarily concerned with saving the bodies of unborn babies. On the contrary, they sought to save their souls. They did this by baptizing the products of conception that they extracted by caesarean section. Theological mandates now replaced medical necessity: to save unborn souls, authorities had to affirm that unborn children were individuals who had their own souls in need of saving. This quest to baptize the unborn child changed the historical trajectory of cesarean surgery, transforming a rare pre-modern surgery into a mundane modern surgery.

King Charles IV wrote in 1804 that he considered all products of unborn design to have a soul, even if they were “as small as a barleycorn”. His tenure meant that priests performed surgery to extract unborn products of any size, no matter how small. That same year, Charles IV also declared that priests should not allow a woman to be buried in their parishes unless they first checked whether she was pregnant – even if the pregnancy did not. was only in its infancy. If a priest had already buried a woman and then heard that she was pregnant, the priest was obligated to dig up her body and open her womb. In short, women’s corpses became objects of theological scrutiny and the discovery of an out-of-wedlock conception could bring shame to their families even after her death.

Historians say priests performed hundreds of cesarean operations between 1750 and 1850, from southern Argentina to modern-day California, with one of the first operations on an enslaved woman in Peru. Eight states in the southwestern United States were then part of the Spanish Empire, and the operation was particularly common there.

Battles for political control partly explained this pattern. Southwest communities were particularly rebellious in the late 18th century because Indigenous nations fought off encroachments from several colonial powers, including French, American, and Spanish troops. Native warriors frequently raided the missions, stealing horses, guns, and food. In this context, some priests viewed surgery as a means of threatening Aboriginal women and forcing them to comply with Christian mandates. Additionally, the priests focused on the unborn child because they believed their mothers were already lost to demonic forces such as shamanism and witchcraft. Women’s bodies have become more indispensable in the struggle to evangelize the next generation.

At times, surgeries became a tit-for-tat war strategy: during the 1780-1782 Túpac Amaru rebellion in Peru, some indigenous rebels were said to have excised infants from the wombs of colonizers. Some theologians responded similarly, proposing that the best response was a forced caesarean section against the natives, even if it involved substantial violence. They cited examples of violent Caesarean sections during warfare in ancient Rome shifting from an emphasis on evangelism to an emphasis on attacking the womb as a strategy of warfare.

During the late 18th and 19th centuries, theologians increasingly sought to monitor and control women’s sexual behavior. Priests often tried to find out which women in their parishes were pregnant so they could plan an operation in case they had trouble giving birth. Identifying the time of death was impossible in the 18th century, and priests sometimes began to operate before the woman died. In other cases, priests used the threat of surgery to warn women that surgery was a potential consequence of pregnancy out of wedlock. As historian José Rigau Pérez has shown, family members often opposed cesarean section, denouncing the desecration of the dead. Authorities have called for the arrest of the families who resisted, charging them with the crime of homicide against an unborn life.

Not all religious caesareans were coercive, and not all priests targeted rebellious women for surgery. However, it is clear that the history of caesarean section is part of a colonial and religious context marked by social violence. Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples of the Americas have suffered from war, forced labor, and a caste system that stratified people according to color and heritage.

The fight for the souls of unborn children is inseparable from this context, because the Caesarean section was not only intended to prevent women and children from dying during childbirth: it was rather to show that the colonial powers had the right to define the boundaries of unborn life and prioritize spiritual personality at all costs. This is important because this conflict remains central to modern debates about fetal personality, and it reminds us that such arguments are rooted in the historical weaponization of female reproduction to advance political, religious, and economic agendas.

Elizabeth O’Brien is assistant professor of medical history at Johns Hopkins University.

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