In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Abortion and Infanticide

  • Introduction
  • Pre-Colonial Abortifacients in the Americas, Europe, and Africa
  • Colonial Mexico
  • Nineteenth-Century Mexico
  • Twentieth-Century Mexico
  • Central America
  • The Caribbean
  • Colombia and Venezuela
  • Peru and Bolivia
  • Brazil
  • Argentina
  • Chile

Latin American Studies Abortion and Infanticide
Nora Jaffary
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0251


The history of infanticide and abortion in Latin America has garnered increasing attention in the past two decades. Particularities of topic and temporal focus characterize this work and shape this bibliography’s geographic organization. Mexico possesses the most developed scholarship in both the colonial and modern periods. There, tracing of the persistence of pre-Conquest Indigenous medical knowledge and the endurance of paraprofessional obstetrical practitioners through the colonial era and into the 19th century features prominently and echoes some of the scholarship examining European midwives’ administration of plant-based abortifacients in the medieval and Early Modern eras. This topic plays a role, but a much less prominent one in scholarship on Colombia, Peru, and Brazil. Scholars of Brazil, the Caribbean, and circum-Caribbean have focused in particular on the issue of enslaved mothers’ commission of infanticide and abortion on their own children in the 18th and 19th centuries, a particularly fraught issue in the context of the abolition of the slave trade. A central assumption in much scholarship on the 19th-century professionalization (and masculinization) of obstetrical medicine is that the marginalization of midwives entailed a reduction in women’s access to abortion, although this position has been challenged in some recent scholarship on 19th-century Mexico in particular. The examination of the ways that the new republics perceived the crimes of infanticide and abortion in their legal codes, judicial processes, and in community attitudes is a central focus of 19th- and 20th-century scholarship. Scholars have remarked upon the considerable uniformity across all regions of a paucity of denunciations or convictions in the first half of the 19th century and the rise of criminal trials for both crimes in its last three decades. This change coincided (although no one has argued been provoked by) many countries’ issuance of national penal codes in the 1870s and 1880s. This intensification of persecution also coincided with the Catholic church’s articulation of an explicit condemnation of abortion (Pius IX’s 1869 bull Apostolicae Sedis), although demonstrating the concrete implications of this decree to the Latin American setting remains a task yet to be undertaken. Historians of both abortion and infanticide have also concentrated on defendant motives and defenses in criminal investigations. While some highlight defendants’ economic desperation, most scholars argue that the public defense of female sexual honor was a crucial motivator, which courts understood as a legitimate concern in 19th- and even mid-20th-century trials. Scholarship on 20th-century infanticide and abortion history continues to concentrate on fluctuations in attitudes toward honor, gender, and the family as influences on criminal codes and especially judicial sentencing for both acts, and toward the late 20th century on feminist efforts to decriminalize abortion that have met with varied success across countries.

Pre-Colonial Abortifacients in the Americas, Europe, and Africa

As Koblitz 2014 discusses, various mid-20th century scholars dismissed the availability and effectiveness of abortifacients in Europe and beyond it, terming them unscientific “folk medicines” which did little to control fertility before the advent of “modern medicine” in the mid-20th century. However, Koblitz 2014, Riddle 1992, and Schiebinger 2004 have more recently traced medical, legal, popular, theological, and literary sources that indicate that women from the ancient world through to the early modern era (as was the case in pre-Conquest Americas) widely used medicinal plants to control fertility, most often by ingesting emmenagogues and abortifacients early in pregnancy. In the Old World, some of the most frequently used substances were rue, pennyroyal, and juniper. In the New World, at least after contact, they included cotton root, pennyroyal, tansy, and the peacock flower (fleur de paradis). After contact and the establishment of European colonization of the Americas, Schiebinger 2004 discusses how enslaved African women, seeking to avoid giving birth to enslaved children, were among the most frequently reported employers of medicinal abortifacients. Müller 2012 and Noonan 1967 also document that lay people, and religious and lay authorities alike, were far less united in their condemnation of abortion than is the case in much of Latin America in the late 20th and 21st century. Although there is some debate on the question, the Catholic Church did not adopt a definitive position about the definition or sinfulness of abortion before the late 19th century, and no consensus existed in most European states about the illicitness of abortion (or even legal or grammatical distinction between miscarriage and abortion) before the same period. Meanwhile, populations and medical authorities alike, in part because of the absence of reliable means to confirm the state of pregnancy before the 20th century, understood as licit, morally acceptable, and even desirable from a health point of view women’s common practices of ingesting emmenagogues to maintain “regularity” in their menstrual cycles. Before the late 19th century, they did not consider amenorrhea (the absences of the menses) as a clear sign of pregnancy.

  • Koblitz, Ann Hibner. Sex and Herbs and Birth Control: Women and Fertility Regulation through the Ages. Seattle, WA: Kovalevskaia Fund, 2014.

    Excellent historic introduction to the herbs that women in Europe, the Americas, and beyond used as abortifacients and emmenagogues. Provides a nuanced treatment of the many substances earlier generations had dismissed as ineffective folk medicine that actually functioned efficiently to control reproduction. The text also provides an overview to the legal status of abortion in many Latin American countries and a discussion of the historic reasons for its prohibition.

  • Müller, Wolfgang P. The Criminalization of Abortion in the West: Its Origins in Medieval Law. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801450891.001.0001

    Müller examines abortion’s criminalization in the high and later Middle Ages through the study of 12th-century canon and Roman law. He contends that the Latin West was exceptional in this era in associating abortion with the new concept of criminal behavior. He briefly discusses Castilian King Afonso X’s development of the foundational legal code, the Siete Partidas, but the Iberian context is largely marginal to his study.

  • Noonan, John T., Jr. “Abortion and the Catholic Church: A Summary History.” Natural Law Forum 126 (1967): 85–131.

    Noonan reviews Church doctrine about abortion and the questions of ensoulment and animation of the fetus from the era of the early Church through to the 19th century. He shows that canonists and theologians held conflicting interpretations about the licitness of abortion until the last third of the 19th century.

  • Riddle, John M. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

    This exhaustive survey, covering the history of the ancient world through the Renaissance, seeks to correct the misperception that classical and medieval people were ignorant of medicinal methods of contraception and abortion. Riddle concludes that there is little evidence that ancient world communities extensively practiced infanticide, suggesting they must have commonly practiced both contraception and abortion to control population size.

  • Schiebinger, Londa. “Exotic Abortifacients.” In Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. By Linda Schiebinger, 105–149. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    Schiebinger discusses women’s use of abortifacients to procure abortions in the early modern Atlantic World, detailing the evidence of plants women used to control fertility in early modern Europe, in the Antilles, and on the Caribbean coast of Latin America, most prominently the “peacock flower” Poinciana pulcherrima. Considerable evidence documents that enslaved women in the Caribbean ingested such substances to avoid birthing enslaved children.

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