Abortion in Mexican History: An Interview with Elizabeth O’Brien

Abortion in Mexican History: An Interview with Elizabeth O’Brien

Sarah Mellors

Nursing Clio’s third annual best article prize went to Elizabeth O’Brien, an assistant professor of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University, for her article, “The Many Meanings of Aborto: Pregnancy Termination and the Instability of a Medical Category Over Time.” I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth about her work on the history of abortion in Mexico and the relationship between historical understandings of abortion and contemporary reproductive justice debates.

Sarah: Congratulations on winning Nursing Clio’s award for best article! Could you tell me more about your research in general?

Elizabeth: Thank you so much, Sarah! I’m grateful for recognition from brilliant colleagues at Nursing Clio and humbled to have the chance to speak with you about my research. Right now I’m mostly working on my book manuscript, which is tentatively titled Surgery and Salvation: Race, Religion, and the Roots of Obstetric Violence in Mexico, 1770-1940 (shout out to The University of North Carolina Press for agreeing to publish it! I’m so excited and grateful). The book examines how reproductive surgeries acquired racialized and religious meanings in Mexico, and how obstetric medicine from the 18th to 20th centuries came to be “salvational,” or focused on moral and biological regeneration, instead of reproductive dignity or justice. It spans the Enlightenment through the era of eugenics, starting with religious cesarean sections under colonial rule in Mexico and ending in the twentieth century with an examination of eugenic sterilization, fertility control, and abortion. As a whole, it analyzes how Catholic theologies of personhood have influenced and been influenced by modern medical ideas about pregnancy and reproduction, and how racial prejudice has affected Mexican obstetric training and clinical practice. It does so by directing attention to experiential and embodied histories in obstetric literature.

The article you so generously read was an offshoot of my book research. It developed from conversations at a 2018 meeting at the University of Edinburgh, which was organized by Cassia Roth and Diana Paton. This was a productive series of conversations with colleagues working on the history of fertility control all over the world. At the time, I was in the thick of my dissertation about race, religion, and reproductive surgery in Mexico, and I wasn’t quite sure what to write about in this article. The conference was a rich and productive space for dialogue, and I slowly realized that I needed to reflect on the fact that “abortion” was far from a stable concept in Mexican history. It shifted profoundly over time, influenced by theological, positivist, and revolutionary ideas among others. Cassia and Diana were editors extraordinaire who helped me grapple with this idea over the course of several years. Cassia read the article many times over and offered helpful suggestions for clarification and improvement. I’m very grateful to them both, as well as to Nora Jaffary, whose expertise and generosity shaped the article immensely.

Sarah: How did you get interested in the history of reproductive medicine in Mexico?

Elizabeth: This is a great question with a bit of a long answer. My mom birthed my brother and sister at home and was quite dedicated to the homebirth movement. When I was around 6 or 7 she trained to be a midwife, but because she was a single mother of three young kids, she needed more stable and predictable employment. So she became a nurse and worked overnight shifts in labor and delivery wards. We were still little, and she worked four nights a week, but she often couldn’t afford childcare or didn’t have anyone to leave us with. So, she would kind of sneak us into the hospital, and we would all stay in an empty hospital room overnight, where we would overhear the sounds of women giving birth—struggling, crying, screaming, voicing anger, rejoicing, and mourning. This was profoundly impactful; I guess you could say it was formative to who I am as a person, my worldview. At home we didn’t have a television so I would read for fun. I totally immersed myself in my mom’s clinical textbooks, as well as classics like Birthing as a Rite of Passage, A Child is Born, Our Bodies, Ourselves, etc.

In high school and at university, I got involved in activism and my mind was blown by reading Angela Davis, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, Betita Martinez, and other incredible feminist and womanist writers. I was lucky to be surrounded by activists and was learning about the history of U.S. imperialism in Latin America as well as the Chican@/Latin@/Latinx struggle – the history of Latin American migration to the U.S. and the colonization of Black and Brown people, citizens and non-citizens, within this nation’s borders. I wanted to learn more about this history and learn how to speak Spanish, so when I was 19 I went to Mexico for 9 months. While there I was really struck by the intensity of abortion-rights activism, as well as its backlash. In my first semester of grad school, I found nineteenth-century sources depicting women’s experiences with obstetric violence, and I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to write a book about. I was totally overcome with the desire to write about this and wanted to learn about every aspect of its history in Mexico. It’s surreal now to see the project coming to fruition. Thankfully, I’ve come across so many supportive people in the history of medicine and the body as well as in Latin American history. I’m very lucky that Philippa Levine was a mentor at UT Austin, and she always encouraged me to do this project she said, “you have to do what makes your heart flutter.” I’m so very grateful for activists and activist-scholars like you all at Nursing Clio, who draw on the past in order to show us the way forward.

Sarah: Your article illustrates the ways in which Mexican doctors between the eighteenth century and the present reconciled abortions with religious ideologies. More specifically, you disprove the conventional assumption that Mexican doctors consistently endorsed a conservative position toward pregnancy termination and instead show that they repeatedly reconceptualized pregnancy termination to align with religious doctrine. What broader historical lessons about conceptions of fetal life and pregnancy in Latin America can be drawn from your article?

Elizabeth: This is such a great question and a difficult one! I think, in sum, we should not assume that Catholic doctors or doctors in predominantly Catholic countries have homogenous views on abortion. I follow this organization called Catholics for Choice, and they often make the point that Catholic women are just as likely to have abortions as other women in the U.S. We know that illicit abortion rates are high in Catholic countries. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that the Catholic Church made the protection of unborn life a cornerstone of its social platform. This is rooted in nineteenth century papal politics, including religious backlash against liberal constitutionalism, state secularization, and the persecution and expulsion of religious orders from Catholic strongholds like Mexico. My work shows that conflicts over reproduction in Mexico seemed to reach their highest pitch in periods of church-state warfare and strife. Women, children, and families have consistently been weaponized in fights between religious and secular authorities seeking to exert maximal control over social and political ideologies and formations. It’s important to look to places like Latin America to see exactly how this happened, how it has contributed to massive gender inequalities in the region including avoidable maternal mortality and death from abortion-related sepsis and hemmorhage, and how feminists and activists have fought back against these attacks on their lives.

I also want to mention that with the overturn of Roe v. Wade, we are about to see a massive uptick in the criminal prosecution of miscarriages. This has ample precedent in other countries, especially in Latin America, where, in the last 25 years, tens of thousands of women have been jailed after experiencing an obstetric emergency. The vast majority insist that they did not seek to terminate their pregnancies, but they are nonetheless accused of abortion. In some cases, women have been prosecuted for abortion even when their infant has survived the obstetric emergency. This reminds us of what Dorothy Roberts tells us about how Black women were criminalized starting in the 1990s under the guise of accusations of harm against their unborn children (the “crack mother” panic).[1] The people most affected by forced birth are those marginalized on the base of race, sexuality, disability, and class.

Here’s a really good article by Nina Lakhani on the subject: “Abortion: El Salvador’s jailed women offer US glimpse of post-Roe future.”

Sarah: Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers. Once again, congratulations on winning this year’s Nursing Clio article prize, and I look forward to reading more of your scholarship as it becomes available!


  1. Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Vintage Books, 1997).

Featured image caption: Sarah Mellors (R) and Elizabeth O’Brien (L). (Courtesy Nursing Clio)

Sarah Mellors is an Assistant Professor of East Asian History at Missouri State University. She is currently finishing her first book, Reproductive Realities in China: Birth Control and Abortion, 1911–2021, coming out in 2023 from Cambridge University Press.