Surgery and Salvation

The Roots of Reproductive Injustice in Mexico, 1770–1940

By Elizabeth O'Brien

336 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 4 tables

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7587-9
    Published: November 2023
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7586-2
    Published: November 2023
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7588-6
    Published: October 2023

Studies in Social Medicine

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Awards & distinctions

Judy Ewell Award, Rocky Mountain Council for Latin American Studies

Honorable Mention, Thomas McGann Book Prize, Rocky Mountain Council for Latin American Studies

2024 Best Book Award, Nineteenth-Century Section, Latin American Studies Association

Honorable Mention, 2024 Frances Richardson Keller-Sierra Prize, Western Association of Women Historians

In this sweeping history of reproductive surgery in Mexico, Elizabeth O'Brien traces the interstices of religion, reproduction, and obstetric racism from the end of the Spanish empire through the post-revolutionary 1930s. Examining medical ideas about operations (including cesarean section, abortion, hysterectomy, and eugenic sterilization), Catholic theology, and notions of modernity and identity, O'Brien argues that present-day claims about fetal personhood are rooted in the use of surgical force against marginalized and racialized women. This history illuminates the theological, patriarchal, and epistemological roots of obstetric violence and racism today.

O'Brien illustrates how ideas about maternal worth and unborn life developed in tandem. Eighteenth-century priests sought to save unborn souls through cesarean section, while nineteenth-century doctors aimed to salvage some unmarried women's social reputations via therapeutic abortion. By the twentieth century, eugenicists wished to regenerate the nation's racial profile, in part by sterilizing women in public clinics. The belief that medical interventions could redeem women, children, and the nation is what O’Brien refers to as "salvation though surgery." As operations acquired racial and religious significances, Indigenous, Afro-Mexican, and mixed-race people's bodies became sites for surgical experimentation. Even during periods of Church-state conflict, O'Brien argues, the religious valences of experimental surgery manifested in embodied expressions of racialized, and often-coercive, medical science.

About the Author

Elizabeth O’Brien is assistant professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles.
For more information about Elizabeth O'Brien, visit the Author Page.


“A sophisticated analysis of reproductive surgeries in Mexico . . . grounded in theories of reproductive justice, reproductive governance, and obstetric violence.”—The Lancet

"A stunning contribution to the history of gender, medicine, and race in Mexico and beyond. Elizabeth O’Brien has unearthed a wealth of original and exciting material that offers nuanced and compelling insight into the making of modern obstetrics."—Nora Jaffary, author of Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico: Childbirth and Contraception in Mexico, 1750–1905

"Exhaustively researched and analytically sharp, Elizabeth O’Brien’s exemplary scholarship demonstrates just how crucial the history of Mexican and Latin American surgical intervention is to our understanding of obstetric and gynecological violence. A brilliant, cogently argued book with immense contemporary relevance."—Karin Rosemblatt, author of The Science and Politics of Race in Mexico and the United States, 1910–1950

"Surgery and Salvation is a historical masterpiece that demonstrates the perilous reach and staying power of medical racism in reproductive medicine and will certainly resonate with those of us interested in dismantling it."—Deirdre Cooper Owens, author of Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology