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Wrestling with the angel: The struggle of Roman Catholic clergy, physicians, and believers with the rise of medical practice, 1807-1940

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posted on 2023-09-06, 03:03 authored by Joseph Glennon Pierce Ryan

This study explores the role of Catholicism in shaping American medical practice from 1807 to 1940. Catholics interacted with American society against the background of deeply held beliefs in marriage, procreation, and salvation. The gradual adoption of epigenisis by the Church, and the assumption that human life began at the moment of conception, challenged existing beliefs on the nature of human identity. A Catholic belief that life had absolute value shaped an emerging ideal of scientific medicine whose goal was the preservation of all life. Five chapters on childbirth dilemmas reveal the struggle of physicians to achieve this new ideal. Catholicism shaped a cesarean debate among physicians and the search for alternatives to craniotomy, or therapeutic abortion. Catholic beliefs on human identity also shaped opposition to abortion from 1834 to 1871. The Church promoted dissection and surgical education to promote lifesaving operations. However, outmoded concepts of disease hampered the search to cure women's disease and prevent reported abortions. From 1865 to 1940, the Church goaded physicians toward the ideal of life saving operations. The effort revealed a reciprocal process of change that shaped and reshaped Catholicism and the culture of medicine. The Church's ideal awaited a one-hundred year learning curve in surgical education. By 1940, new questions arose for women, physicians, and the Catholic hierarchy who faced the issues posed by childbirth intervention. However, the ideas that emerged from these early debates continue to shape debates over the medical dilemmas of the present day.



American University




Ph.D. American University 1997.


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