The haunting origin of the C-section: they weren't always performed to save a baby's life.

Today in Australia, approximately 32 per cent of births end in a caesarean section. Primarily, the surgical procedure is performed in cases where a vaginal delivery would put a baby or mother at risk.

While it would make sense to assume that the procedure developed out of medical necessity, an abundance of research suggests this isn’t the case.

Instead, it seems that the now life-saving C-section has its origins in a chilling 19th century tradition within the Catholic Church.

On April 13, 1804, King Charles IV of Spain issued an official order that no pregnant woman was to be buried with her unborn child inside her. He demanded a postmortem caesarean section must be carried out, so that the fetus could be baptized and “receive salvation”.

Raphael's La Donna Gravida. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

According to researcher José G. Rigau-Pérez, who has written at length about the practice in Spanish America and the Philippines, the church went so far as to create detailed instructions with surgeons.

Particularly disturbing is Rigau-Pérez's findings that "if a surgeon were not quickly available, the operation was to be performed by anyone".

Often this meant a family member of the deceased woman.

In interpreting this tradition, the researcher says, "In a broad context, it is an example of how concern for death, a general constant, is expressed in actions that reflect the particular functioning and beliefs of a society".

The practice died out over the decades, and thankfully, the Catholic church separated itself from the issue of whether babies of deceased mothers should receive salvation. C-sections to "save dead babies souls," however, are part of the long and complex narrative of the relationship between religion and women's bodies.