Historical essay
A Miscarriage of Justice

A Miscarriage of Justice

Cassia Roth

My book, A Miscarriage of Justice: Women’s Reproductive Lives and the Law in Early Twentieth-Century Brazil (Stanford University Press, 2020), begins and ends with the story of twenty-nine-year-old Isalina Vieira, a Brazilian woman living in the country’s capital of Rio de Janeiro. One October morning in 1912, Vieira went into labor. She called her female neighbor, who accompanied Vieira to the nearby public maternity hospital, Laranjeiras Maternity Hospital. When the two women arrived at Laranjeiras, the on-duty physicians refused their entry, declaring that all the beds were occupied. Vieira soon gave birth to her infant on the sidewalk in front of the hospital. It died minutes later.

While the child was born alive, it had fallen to the sidewalk during the birth and the umbilical cord had ruptured. The district police chief did not take what perhaps today we would think was the logical course of action: investigating the hospital for medical malpractice. Rather, he opened an infanticide investigation to see if Vieira had purposefully killed her newborn. The infant’s autopsy found the infant died due to four factors: a premature delivery at eight months gestation, a ruptured umbilical cord, a small skull fracture, and the “omission of the necessary care [by the mother].” Although the police chief had used this last clause, taken directly from criminal legislation, as the justification for the investigation, he eventually concluded that the crucial factor required for a conviction was absent—the intent to kill. The police chief declared, based on witness testimony, that Vieira would not have gone to the hospital if she had planned to murder her child. Vieira, who had been separated from her husband for twelve years (implying the child she had delivered had another father), did not adhere to the established norms of “proper” female sexual behavior—virginity or chastity outside of marriage and fidelity and motherhood within it. Nevertheless, the police chief believed she was innocent of infanticide, and he never charged her with a crime.

Avenida Central in Rio de Janeiro, 1906. (Courtesy Monovisions)

I found Vieira in the archives in fall 2012, when I was living in Rio de Janeiro and completing my fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation. When I first glanced at the police investigation, I didn’t think too much of it. My archival routine consisted of transcribing the final police decision (here, non-prosecution) and then taking pictures of the entire document to transcribe in full later. When I finally read the entire case a few weeks later, I was horrified. I had started my dissertation research with the objective of exploring legal approaches toward abortion and infanticide in early twentieth-century Brazil. But here I had something else. Here was a poor reproductive health outcome, a neonatal death, that the police had investigated as fertility control—infanticide. I needed to change my project. By only looking at the legal history of fertility control, I was missing the bigger picture—the interconnected histories of law and medicine, and their consequences for women’s lived experiences.

Isalina Vieira’s story came to encapsulate the central argument of my book. In early twentieth-century Brazil, shortly after the final abolition of slavery (1888) and the end of monarchical rule and implementation of a republican government (1889), all women’s reproductive lives, but particularly those of poor women of color, were forced into regimes of institutional regulation. Various governmental and philanthropic entities intervened in women’s reproduction. On the one hand, obstetricians and public health reformers worked to medicalize pregnancy and childbirth. They built institutions like the Maternidade Laranjeiras to assist poor and working-class women during their pregnancies and deliveries. In part because the science was rudimentary and in part because the government did not adequately fund projects, health officials never effectively improved or expanded obstetric services. Thus, high rates of miscarriage, stillbirth, and maternal mortality continued. Vieira knew there was a free hospital she could go to, but it did not have enough beds to actually help deliver her child.

On the other hand, the police and the criminal justice system increased their surveillance and prosecution of abortion and infanticide. The Rio de Janeiro police force expanded in the first several decades of the twentieth century, and its interaction with reproductive-age women was often antagonistic. Vieira’s experience is a case in point. The district police chief, instead of helping Vieira or questioning the hospital’s practice, cast suspicion on Vieira’s sexual honor. Perhaps he viewed Vieira, a working-class woman who relied on public services and who was separated from her husband and thus carrying a child conceived through adultery, with suspicion. Although Vieira’s case never made it to court, the criminal justice system began prosecuting abortion and infanticide with more frequency after the passage of the 1890 Penal Code. As with Vieira, this punitive focus created a culture of condemnation surrounding poor women’s pregnancy and childbirth.

A maternity ward in Rio de Janeiro, 1908. (Courtesy Saudades Do Rio)

Structural inequalities in women’s reproductive lives caused the death of Isalina Vieira’s newborn on the sidewalk in front of the Maternidade Laranjeiras in 1912. The subsequent infanticide investigation further underscores how the Brazilian state chose to address these inequities: through punitive and not preventive measures. Although the criminal justice system never prosecuted Vieira for being the victim of medical neglect, it neither investigated the hospital nor supported her as a mother. But Vieira was not alone. Her friend advocated for her during the emergency. Another public hospital admitted Vieira after the birth, and other police officers spoke up in her defense. We do not know what happened to Vieira following the investigation. Her previous actions, however, conceiving out of wedlock, seeking out free medical assistance, forming social networks, demonstrate that she carved out a space for herself despite the unequal society in which she lived. She, like the other women featured throughout the book, negotiated their reproductive lives against all odds. Isalina Vieira reminds us that women in Brazil, and across the globe, will continue to do so, no matter the consequences. This book is about their lives.

Featured image caption: A maternity ward in Rio de Janeiro. (Courtesy Saudades Do Rio)

Cassia received her PhD in Latin American History with a Concentration in Gender Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her book manuscript, titled A Miscarriage of Justice: Reproduction, Medicine, and the Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1890-1940), examines reproductive health in relation to legal and medical policy in turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. Cassia’s research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the Fulbright IIE, and the National Science Foundation.