Martha Few et al., "Baptism Through Incision: The Postmortem Cesarean Operation in the Spanish Empire" (Pennsylvania State UP, 2020)


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In 1804, King Charles IV of Spain enacted a royal order mandating the postmortem cesarean procedure in all of Spain's dominions. The Audiencia de Guatemala, way back in 1785, had already enacted a law mandating postmortem cesareans for all deceased pregnant women and even those suspected of being pregnant when they had passed away. Audiencias of other viceroyalties also enacted similar laws before 1804. What explains the emergence of the postmortem cesarean operation in colonial Latin America? What was the purpose of this procedure?

Baptism Through Incision: The Postmortem Cesarean Operation in the Spanish Empire (Penn State Press, 2020), edited by Drs. Martha Few, Zeb Tortorici, and Adam Warren tell us the story of the postmortem cesarean operation in the Spanish Empire during the eighteenth century, though the book builds a genealogy that situates this procedure in a longer history that begins in the medieval period (and even earlier!) and extends way up the twentieth century. Part of the Latin American Original series (LAO) of the Pennsylvania University Press, this book centers on the translation (made by Nina M. Scott) of a fascinating medicoreligious text: Pedro José de Arrese’s Physical, Canonical, Moral Principles . . . on the Baptism of Miscarried Fetuses and the Cesarean Operation on Women Who Die Pregnant.

Additionally, the editors present us with shorter excerpts of a wide range of texts (other medical treatises, scientific and political journals, medical instructions) that also deal with the postmortem cesarean operation in the Spanish American world. Here we talk about transatlantic enlightenment cultures; different conceptions of life and death; the co-existence and co-production of religion and medical procedures; the changes that the cesarean operation went through in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and lastly, as usual, why this history matters to the present. A must for those listeners that want to learn more about the history of the body, medicine, and gender!

Lisette Varón-Carvajal is a PhD Candidate at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. You can tweet her and suggest books at @LisetteVaron

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