Death Without Weeping

by Nancy Scheper-Hughes

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Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes lived and conducted research with the residents of an extremely poor neighborhood of northeastern Brazil. She uses the fictional name of Alto do Cruzeiro for this poverty-stricken community, called a favela in Portuguese. Scheper-Hughes, who specializes in health and medicine, found that the infant mortality rate in Bom Jesus is very high, as it is in many poor communities worldwide. In her study, she tried to find out the reasons for the high death rate among very young children as well as how the mothers coped with these terrible losses. Most of the women with whom she spoke had lost more than one baby.

Scheper-Hughes found that mothers must make a set of extremely difficult choices. She stresses that this requirement is a defining characteristic of human beings and as such, one that we all share. The kinds of survival issues with which mothers struggle on a daily basis are often referred to as “lifeboat ethics.” Because most women in the neighborhood do become mothers and raise several children, they become adept at reading the signs of trouble that an infant will exhibit. Inevitably, some of the babies will die. The anthropologist observed that mothers who lose infants were often consoled by their Catholic faith. They see the deceased infants as “little angels” whom God has called to heaven, and families often elaborate funerals for them.

Poverty-stricken people, Scheper-Hughes observed, are highly aware of risk and rarely have confidence in the government; they often mistrust non-governmental organizations as well. The people often did not seek medical treatment for a sick child because they fully expected that doctors and hospitals could not, or even would not, help them. Brazil’s national medical system has regularly proved inadequate or even hostile to their problems. Such things as healthy baby clinics do not exist. She found that many people hesitated to take a child to the hospital because they regard hospitals as places where people go to die. Some mothers conclude, she asserts, that their baby cannot be helped or even that the baby was destined for their angelic future.

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