MATERNAL death is a serious problem in the Philippines. Poor women especially, with limited access to reproductive health services, skilled birth attendants, and modern and safe contraceptives, are more likely to turn to dangerous methods to induce abortion and to die at childbirth from infection, hemorrhage, and other complications. On average, 11 pregnancy-related deaths occur each day.
Around 200 years ago, maternal mortality was vastly higher. Then, as now, the paramount concern for the Roman Catholic Church was to save the unborn and safeguard its soul. Since the Middle Ages, it had been thought that the souls of unbaptized infants who had died at birth would not have been freed from [the stain of Adam and Eve’s original sin][ and were deprived of God’s grace and salvation. Their destination was the limbus infantium, the “children’s limbo,” neither heaven nor hell but a place where they would enjoy natural human happiness , nonetheless, forever suffer the deprivation of heavenly bliss. Today this concept has been downgraded to “a hypothesis,” but back then it was Catholic doctrine that baptism was indispensable to the salvation of a soul.
In 1856, a book entitled Embriologia Sagrada (Sacred Embryology) was published in the Philippines by Father Gregorio Sanz, a 39 year old Spanish priest who was the cura párocco of Mandaue, Cebu. Written in Spanish and Latin, the book was an instruction manual for priests on how to surgically extract the unborn foetus from the corpse of its mother, for the purpose of baptism – a post-mortem caesarean, in other words. Such books were not uncommon, and could be found in Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
Like these works, Sanz sought to educate priests in obstetrical knowledge. He offered highly detailed instructions on how to avert involuntary abortions, to baptize an endangered foetus in utero with a syringe, and to perform caesarean operations on mothers who died in labor, in order to retrieve and baptize the infant, whether alive or dead.
Sanz wrote with the clarity of a cook writing out a recipe. He carefully explained the type of surgical knives to be employed, how and where to cut, and what one ought to see, the placenta, for instance, could be distinguished because it was transparent, and what one’s hands and fingers should be doing: “make a small opening, introduce one or two fingers of the left hand, and with the knife open from the bottom up until the membranes that envelop the creature [the foetus]are discovered.” In notes, Sanz would discuss a variety of topics, some mundane, others close to his heart. For instance, he would mention the price of a good scalpel, and his repugnance toward female sexual pleasure, venting in particular on the clitoris.
Three detailed anatomical illustrations are provided in the book as a visual guide to priests who would be faced with the gruesome task of removing a foetus from its dead mother.
The first showed diagrams of the uterus, the fallopian tubes, and implantation of an egg.
The second was of an embryo, as seen under a microscope, the placenta, and membranes.
And the third was an arresting image of a fully developed foetus “about three months of the natural size,” attached by its umbilical cord, but lifted away and out from the womb, drawn as a gaping cavity and mass of tissue and veins. Another illustration depicts a priest pouring water over a dead foetus, which he has perhaps just cut from the mother’s womb.
Sanz strived to harmonize religious thinking with science, and his book was an amalgam of theological argument, scientific ideas on the workings of the female reproductive system, and surgical techniques.
Not long after the publication of his book, the Spanish civil government made a concerted effort to professionalize medicine. In 1871 the Dominican-run University of Santo Tomas established a Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy. There was a desire to reconcile scientific progress with religious faith. The rector of the University, quoting a Roman philosopher, declared: ‘Science without religion will become pagan, and religion without science becomes false’. Doctors trained in Western medical science denounced and pilloried the practices of traditional midwives and healers, the hilot and herbolarios, as dangerously superstitious, and tried to persuade women to consult trained physicians and licensed midwives.
Women themselves were well aware of how perilous pregnancy could be. With their survival hanging in the balance, women of all social classes hedged their bets: they acknowledged the existence of supernatural forces, good and bad, and believed in the fantastic, the miraculous, the efficacy of divine intercession, and put their faith in the power of relics, shrines and pilgrimages. Even the privileged few, who were able to consult medical doctors, also turned to the hilot and the priest.
Sanz’s book, following the teachings of the Catholic Church, focused on the sacred embryo, and sought to safeguard the spiritual status and afterlife condition of an unborn foetus. The overriding concern was to rescue an unbaptised fetus from limbo, which would be its fate should it remain in the womb of its dead mother. Clerical interest in the unborn did not extend to the health and well-being of pregnant mothers, and the safe delivery of their babies.
Dr. Rachel A. G. Reyes
Associate Research Fellow
Department of History,
School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)University of London