Article ID: CBB353485138

The Degenerating Sex: Female Sterilisation, Medical Authority and Racial Purity in Catholic Brazil (2020)


This article examines female sterilisation practices in early twentieth-century Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It argues that the medical profession, particularly obstetricians and psychiatrists, used debates over the issue to solidify its moral and political standing during two political moments of Brazilian history: when the Brazilian government separated church and state in the 1890s and when Getúlio Vargas’s authoritarian regime of the late 1930s renewed alliances with the Catholic church. Shifting notions of gender, race, and heredity further shaped these debates. In the late nineteenth century, a unified medical profession believed that female sterilisation caused psychiatric degeneration in women. By the 1930s, however, the arrival of eugenics caused a divergence amongst physicians. Psychiatrists began supporting eugenic sterilisation to prevent degeneration – both psychiatric and racial. Obstetricians, while arguing that sterilisation no longer caused mental disturbances in women, rejected it as a eugenic practice in regard to race. For obstetricians, the separation of sex from motherhood was more dangerous than any racial ‘impurities’, both phenotypical and psychiatric. At the same time, a revitalised Brazilian Catholic church rejected eugenics and sterilisation point blank, and its renewed ties with the Vargas regime blocked the medical implementation of any eugenic sterilisation laws. Brazilian women, nonetheless, continued to access the procedure, regardless of the surrounding legal and medical proscriptions.

Citation URI

Similar Citations

Chapter Kravetz, Melissa; (2011)
Promoting Eugenics and Maternalism: Women Doctors and Marriage Counseling in Weimar Germany (/isis/citation/CBB001221549/) unapi

Article O'Brien, Elizabeth; (2013)
Pelvimetry and the Persistance of Racial Science in Obstetrics (/isis/citation/CBB001211781/) unapi

Chapter Richards, Robert J.; (2009)
That Darwin and Haeckel Were Complicit in Nazi Biology (/isis/citation/CBB001032214/) unapi

Article Jacqueline Antonovich; (2021)
White Coats, White Hoods: The Medical Politics of the Ku Klux Klan in 1920s America (/isis/citation/CBB549673660/) unapi

Article Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina; (2007)
Raising a Nation of “Good Animals”: The New Health Society and Health Education Campaigns in Interwar Britain (/isis/citation/CBB000771375/) unapi

Article Joseph, Jay; Wetzel, Norbert A.; (2013)
Ernst Rüdin: Hitler's Racial Hygiene Mastermind (/isis/citation/CBB001320043/) unapi

Article Yoram Mouchenik; Véronique Fau-Vincenti; (2020)
The fate of Jews hospitalized in mental hospitals in France during World War II (/isis/citation/CBB408541862/) unapi

Article Thuy Linh Nguyen; (2018)
Overpopulation, Racial Degeneracy and Birth Control in French Colonial Vietnam (/isis/citation/CBB816275491/) unapi

Book Kennedy, V. Lynn; (2010)
Born Southern: Childbirth, Motherhood, and Social Networks in the Old South (/isis/citation/CBB001200632/) unapi

Book Natali Valdez; (2021)
Weighing the Future: Race, Science, and Pregnancy Trials in the Postgenomic Era (/isis/citation/CBB961294836/) unapi

Article Lawrence, Christopher; (2009)
Degeneration under the Microscope at the fin se siècle (/isis/citation/CBB001021545/) unapi

Book Bell, Susan E.; (2009)
DES Daughters: Embodied Knowledge and the Transformation of Women's Health Politics (/isis/citation/CBB001021024/) unapi

Authors & Contributors
Mitchell, Michele
Solt, George
Liu, Lydia H.
Young, Marilyn
Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina
Bell, Susan E.
Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/Bulletin Canadien d'Histoire de la Medecine
Social History of Medicine
Annals of Science: The History of Science and Technology
Health and History
American Quarterly
Endeavour: Review of the Progress of Science
Temple University Press
Johns Hopkins University Press
Chronos Verlag
University of California, San Diego
University of New Mexico
New York University
Medicine and race
Medicine and gender
Medicine and politics
Birth control; contraception; sterilization
Obstetrics and pregnancy
Rüdin, Ernst
Darwin, Charles Robert
Haeckel, Ernst
Trangay, Gustavo Aldolfo
Monakow, Constantin von
Morel, Bénédict Auguste
United States
Great Britain
Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
Southern states (U.S.)
20th century, early
19th century
20th century
18th century
21st century
Universität Zürich

Be the first to comment!

{{ comment.created_by.username }} on {{ comment.created_on | date:'medium' }}

Log in or register to comment