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Paul Lawrence Farber Humanities Endowment Fund Lecture Presents Elizabeth O'Brien

Elizabeth O'Brien is an Assistant Professor of the History of Medicine and of Latin America at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research and teaching interweave the history of medicine with social and cultural history in order to examine themes of gender, race, religion, empire, and nation in the production of medical knowledge.

O'Brien will present on her recent research titled, "Surgery and Colonialism: How the Church Decided that Life Begins at Conception," and how the caesarean operation played a role in shaping Catholic claims about unborn life.

Efforts to restrict abortion often fixate on slippery questions about when life begins and what constitutes fetal personhood. Catholic authorities arguably led the charge from the mid-18th century to the present, as a long line of popes and their subordinates made the protection of unborn life a cornerstone of the church’s philosophy. But this was not always the case. In fact, the Catholic Church’s positions on fetal life have changed throughout history. It was actually not until 1869 that Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) removed the long-held distinction between “animated” and “unanimated” fetuses and then declared that abortion merited excommunication. Previously, influential thinkers had accepted the long-standing Aristotelian idea that the unborn first had a plantlike soul, then, by mid-pregnancy, a sentient soul and only after birth did they have a rational human soul.


For over four decades, Paul Lawrence Farber was a Professor of Modern Life Sciences and Intellectual History. His research examined the emergence of scientific disciplines such as ornithology, the naturalist tradition, and the development of evolutionary ethics. In addition, he promoted the use of history of science in teaching biology and held a joint appointment in the Department of Zoology. Dr. Farber passed away in 2021.

The Paul Lawrence Farber Humanities Endowment Fund, created in memory of Dr. Farber, supports ongoing public lectures on OSU’s Corvallis campus by outstanding visiting scholars in the fields of Intellectual History, the History of Science, and the History of Medicine.

Sponsored by the Center for the Humanities and the College of Liberal Arts

Wednesday, November 8, 2023 at 4:00pm

LaSells Stewart Center
875 SW 26th Street, Corvallis, OR 97331

Event Type

Lecture or Presentation

Event Topic

Academic, Health and Well-being, Global


Community Members, Faculty and Staff, Student, Alumni




history, Latin America, Medicine, Catholic Church



Center for the Humanities , College of Liberal Arts
Contact Name

Nicole von Germeten

Contact Email

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