The Politics of Reproduction in the Americas: Twentieth-Century Bolivia, Jamaica, and Cuba

AHA Session 85
Conference on Latin American History 12
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Nassau Suite A (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Cassia Roth, University of California, Los Angeles
Raul Necochea, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Session Abstract

The politics surrounding reproduction and population control were part and parcel of twentieth-century Latin American and Caribbean state formation. Whether integral to anti-colonial nationalist rhetoric, transnational physician networks, or the rise and consolidation of military dictatorships, contraception and abortion became the intersection of anxieties over race, class, ethnicity, population quality and quantity, and women’s sexual behavior. Throughout the twentieth century, disparate governmental regimes in the Americas supported or opposed contraception and abortion in order to further their political goals. All the while, women continued to exert control over their own reproductive lives by engaging in contraceptive use, seeking abortions, and refusing to participate in state- and elite-supported policies that utilized women’s bodies as a playing field on which to wage political battles.

Darcy Hughes Heuring, in her discussion of the birth control movement in British colonial Jamaica, argues that reproductive politics—inextricably bound with issues of race and class—were integral to the formation of Jamaican nationalism in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Colored and black middle-class Jamaicans saw the use of contraception among the working-class black population as key to the improved future of the Jamaican nation. Yet working-class Jamaicans had their own views about contraception, rejecting these middle-class ideals. Heuring demonstrates how he ensuing class and racial conflict over reproductive politics became entrenched in Jamaican politics. Rachel Hynson’s exploration of the exchanges of knowledge about women’s reproduction between Cuban and U.S. doctors before and after the 1959 Cuban Revolution demonstrates the importance of transnational interactions in determining health policy and practice in the face of political change. In the process, Hynson challenges Cuban government claims that the Revolution represented a rupture in communication with U.S. and republican ideologies concerning reproduction. Finally, Natalie Kimball highlights the difficult position Bolivian women faced when seeking abortions during Bolivia’s military dictatorship (1964-1982). Adopting a pro-natalist policy in response to allegations of U.S. attempts to limit the indigenous population, the Bolivian military dictatorship greatly restricted both contraceptive use and continued to criminalize abortion. Yet Kimball demonstrates that Bolivian women remained determined to control their own fertility. This conflict, Kimball argues, had serious implications for the country’s return to democracy in the 1980s.

Together, the three papers on this panel explore attempts to control reproduction from both the top-down and the bottom-up in twentieth-century Jamaica, Cuba, and Bolivia. In doing so, they inform our understanding of the role women’s reproductive lives played in national and transnational politics. On the one hand, these papers demonstrate how states and elite actors worked to increase or restrict contraceptive use and access to abortion to further their own political goals. On the other hand, they reveal the complex ways in which populations acted on their own ideas about reproductive politics. These papers demonstrate the complex relationship between reproductive policies and practices in the twentieth-century Americas. Struggles over reproduction, these panelists demonstrate, were multi-faceted and specific to local realities, while simultaneously connected through larger political imperatives in Latin America, the Caribbean, and beyond.

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