April Brown Bag: ‘Abortion, The State, and Public Shaming Through the Centuries’

By WWN Intern Rachel Cohen

Last Monday at WWN we had the pleasure of hearing from Natalie Deibel, an academic who studies women in early modern European history. Giving a talk entitled ‘Abortion, The State, and Public Shaming Through the Centuries,’ Deibel introduced us to some facts and myths about European women from 1500-1750 BC. 

At the simple fact of the female body, women were considered to be defective. The female body was considered a deficient form of the male body, as seen in the lack of terminology for female reproductive organs. Ovaries were referred to as female testes and the uterus was thought to be an inverted and enlarged scrotum. Looking at images of what they believed male and female genitalia to look like, the two were almost indistinguishable (and neither were close to correct). 

An early modern drawing of male and female reproductive anatomy
An early modern drawing of male and female reproductive anatomy

There is also misunderstanding in the present. We tend to think of historical women in terms of their marriages and their children, but in actuality about a fifth of women never married, and of those that were married, many did not have children either because of their own or their husband’s infertility. Also contrary to popular belief, most women did not get married particularly early. The mid-20s were most common for marriage, with only the upper classes afforded the luxury of marrying earlier.

In legal terms, there wasn’t really a discourse of rights yet. And even what might be considered legal privileges were not afforded to women. Though they were technically citizens, bound by the law, they were afforded none of the benefits of citizenship. Instead women were property of their fathers and then their husbands. This led some early radical feminists to suggest that they should not be bound by the law considering they enjoyed none of the privileges of citizenship.

In regards to reproduction, before the birth there was actually quite a bit of wiggle room. Women practiced contraceptive methods such as the rhythm method, abstention, and herbal abortifacients. Pregnancies were not considered true until quickening, or when one could feel the fetus move, so for the first several months of the pregnancy, miscarrying (either intentionally or not) was generally accepted. Women relied on each other for help in ending unwanted pregnancies. 

Mugwort, an herbal abortifacient
Mugwort, an herbal abortifacient

When women couldn’t end pregnancies though, they often faced trouble. Though birth has become a private affair in current time, then it was public knowledge. Birthing women were surrounded by women in the community and the birth was known throughout the town. These public births served as proof of paternity, for women to prove that the child was the child of their husband. For unmarried women though, a child could be a death sentence. They would be shunned by their community and disavowed by their parents. Likely the child would be taken and put into the poorhouse to work and the mother would no longer be able to get any employment besides sex work. Therefore, if single women were unable to abort their pregnancies, some would choose infanticide as the only way to maintain their lives. Infanticide was treated very harshly with 96% of convicted women executed. The law stated that any woman whose child was found to be dead and who had given birth privately was guilty of infanticide. The private birth was a sure sign that the birth was supposed to be concealed.

Act to prevent the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children

Of course fathers were never convicted of infanticide though surely they were often involved. This leads to the conclusion that both these women, and their children, were property. Depriving a man of his property is much worse than getting rid of your own property. 

Deibel concluded by drawing parallels between the lack of maternal choice then and the increasing lack of maternal choice in present state laws around the country. Drawing from the South Dakota law contested in Planned Parenthood v. Rounds, that spread medical misinformation, it was clear that even today, maternity is often not viewed as the sole prerogative of women. It is something to be manipulated, controlled, and made into property. 

The Guttmacher Institute's overview of state abortion laws today
The Guttmacher Institute’s overview of state abortion laws today

Going forward with this knowledge I maintain that we must renew our commitment to the right of all women to make their own choices concerning maternity. This doesn’t just mean access to birth control and abortions. It means providing affordable health care and child care so that all women may have children, not just the rich. It means educating our daughters about their bodies and teaching them that only they get to decide what happens to it. It means respecting the decisions of other women whether they decide to have or not have children, regardless of our own opinions. 

For far too long women’s bodies have been the property of others. If we only address this superficially, with empty rhetoric and action that only focuses on the right to avoid pregnancy, we are failing. We can learn from the women of early modern Europe, and women in the US today, that bearing children is not always treated as a right. Deibel spoke about women who were shamed into dangerous abortions because they would be ostracized if they bore children, the same is happening today. For our society to truly support women, this must not be allowed to continue. 

For more information, scroll down for a reading list Deibel gave us on women in early modern Europe. In the comments tell us how you support women’s maternal choice. How can the choice movement get better? What changes do we need to make and what is the movement doing right?

Reading List (care of Natalie Deibel)
– Merry E. Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe
– Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford, Women in Early Modern England 
– Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, “The Chirurgien’s Apprentice” (website)
– Olwen Hufton, The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe, 1500-1800
– Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain
– Susan Moller Okin, Women in Western Political Thought
– Peter C. Hoffer and N.E. H. Hull, Murdering Mothers: Infanticide in England and New England, 1558-1803
– William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law



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