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A Miscarriage of Justice: Reproduction, Medicine, and the Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1890-1940)


In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, women across the Americas experienced increased public scrutiny of their reproductive lives. Modernizing states began criminalizing practices like abortion, while urbanization, immigration, and changes in women’s workforce participation pushed fertility control into the public consciousness. The Brazilian capital of Rio de Janeiro presents one crucial case study for understanding how the uneven process of modernization affected women’s reproduction, and, in turn, how women negotiated these changes. Early-twentieth-century Brazil experienced a shift from familial to state patriarchy during which women’s sexual honor—and reproduction—became public goods. During this time, the professionalization of obstetrics, changes in criminal law relating to abortion and infanticide, and the expansion of the city’s police force intersected with the inadequate development of health services and continued poor reproductive health outcomes.

This dissertation examines legal and medical policies towards women’s reproductive lives under the 1890 Penal Code (1890-1940), which bridged Brazil’s first foray into democratic governance (the First Republic, 1889-1930) and the early period of Get?lio Vargas’s populist regime (1930-1937). It argues that women’s reproductive lives became the object of increased state attention in post-abolition Rio de Janeiro. As the state began to take over patriarchal power from the family, women’s reproductive capabilities—their ability to conceive and raise future citizens—became central to state formation processes. Fertility control—which allowed women to break with patriarchal understandings of women’s proper sexual behavior, their gendered roles as mothers, and their subordination to male decision-making processes—was a direct threat to both individual and state patriarchy. In regards to reproduction, juridical-medical efforts to modernize Brazilian society worked in a paradoxical manner. The state intervened in women’s reproduction through the surveillance of fertility control but did not expand obstetric services or improve reproductive health outcomes. Ultimately, the state created a culture of condemnation around poor women’s pregnancy and childbirth that extended beyond elite discourses into the popular imagination. This project contends that state control over women’s bodies clashed with the everyday embodied experience of poor reproductive health.

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