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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Reframing Reproductive Oppression: Medical Research into Mortality at San Juan Pueblo


This presentation centers on the scientific and medical research conducted by Sophie D. Aberle, M.D., Ph.D., on the fertility rates of indigenous Pueblos in Northern New Mexico in the early twentieth century. As the first scientist to publish data on the astronomically high rates of infant, child, and maternal death at San Juan Pueblo, Aberle played a defining role in constructing meaning about Pueblo reproductive health and disease. Furthermore, Aberle’s research, undertaken in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, coincided with debates about eugenics in the social sciences and the meaning and function of race in U.S. society. Aberle was an active participant in constructing Pueblo racial identity and, in particular, in racializing the sexual and reproductive functions of indigenous New Mexicans. In this presentation, I analyze several of Aberle’s sexual and reproductive research projects by identifying the cultural contexts and epistemologies that undergird her work. As Alfanso Ortiz, an anthropologist and San Juan Pueblo member has explained, the production of meaning about the Pueblos is always framed by the racialized and colonial relationships between Euro-American researchers and Pueblo members. Andrea Smith (Cherokee) further asserts that attacks on the reproductive health of Native women must be understood as part of ongoing colonial and genocidal relationships between the US and indigenous peoples. Following from recent scholarship on the intersections of reproductive justice, native sovereignty, and white women’s complex roles in colonial sites, this presentation traces how Aberle’s research was implicated in debates about gender racial formation and how these constructions had material consequences for the inhabitants of New Mexico.

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