Friday, April 13, 2018

The Medicalization of Abortion in 19th Century France

[For the purposes of this blogpost, I am using a medical definition of “abortion” as the expulsion of a non-viable fetus, as opposed to the Catholic definition (“an attack on the fetus”). This is for the sake of brevity and clarity, and also because this is how 19th century physicians would have defined it.]

In the first half of the 19th century, France was a very conservative country when it came to the unborn. Although abortions were performed for emergency situations, especially to save the mother’s life, these abortions were not officially sanctioned by the Academy of Medicine, the French national medical association.

This all changed in 1852. At that time, an obstetrician by the name of Lenoir submitted a report to the Academy of Medicine regarding a premature expulsion of a non-viable fetus on a woman whose pelvic diameter was only 5 centimetres, which was too narrow to allow for natural childbirth at term. (I blogged about this case here. He wanted the Academy members to discuss his paper at the society’s weekly meetings with the goal of officially legitimizing this procedure so that other physicians would have no hesitation in performing the same operation when faced with the same dilemma.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Blessed Jean-Martin Moye: Advocate for the Unborn

Blessed Jean-Martin Moye (1730-1793) is remembered by the Church as the founder of the Sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence. As a missionary in China, he organized the first group of Chinese religious sisters.

But this figure also had a stint as an advocate of the unborn. In 1764, while he was a priest in Metz, France, he published a pamphlet entitled On the Extreme Care That We Must Have For the Baptism of Children in the Case of Miscarriage or in the Death of a Pregnant Woman. (I translated it-- please read it!)  He was mostly likely inspired by Francisca Cangiamila’s book Sacred Embryology, which addresses this very topic.

As the title suggests, Moye was trying to encourage people to baptize the babies of dead, pregnant women, as well as miscarried babies.

Regarding when the body is animated with the soul, he cites a number of possibilities: 40 days, 30 days, and even conception (which is a belief that can be traced back to the 17th century.) But he says that the most competent physicians state that animation begins at 20 days.

He does not explain why they think animation happens at 20 days. But I have a theory.

Before the age of cell theory, life was defined, biologically, according to whether an entity had functioning organs. It only makes sense: organisms have organs. The heart is the first organ to develop. In humans, it starts working at about three weeks or 21 days. The presence of a functioning heart would indicate the presence of a human soul. This is perhaps why physicians believe animation occurred at 20 days.

Even though this pamphlet corresponds to Catholic teaching, Father Moye was demoted by his bishop for publishing it. His enemies complained to his bishop about unfair comments about midwives and clergy in the pamphlet. For this, and other “transgressions”, he was appointed vicar of Dieuze, a fairly isolated village, away from the action in Metz.   He was, in effect, penalized for his zeal.

What I find interesting about this person is that he is an example of a saint who took seriously the idea that the unborn are human beings before their birth. Institutionally, this was of course the Church’s official stance. But judging from the need to write about this topic, it does not seem that, on the ground, priests routinely baptized the miscarried, or encouraged the faithful to do so. If they had done that, there would be no need to write a pamphlet encouraging the practice.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

An 18th Century Poem On Miscarriage

I will follow up the blogpost on the 18th century poem on abortion with the 18 century poem on miscarriage. It was published in the November 1787 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine in London. No author was listed.

Untimely sever'd from its mother's womb,
Behold a foetus in its liquid tomb.
Let those who beauty, valour, wisdom prize,
See from whence beauty, valour, wisdom arise;
The little embryo of a future king
Must grow to power from so small a thing.
Whether to float in spirits, or to reign,
Depends at last but on a mother's strain;
Nor does the wreck of life more beauteous shew,
Dissect a belle, anatomise a beaux,
The rattling bones, beside the foetus plac'd,
Those rattling bones, which erst a ball-room grac'd, -
The sad remains of what was call'd divine,
Perhaps descended from a royal line;
If free in choice, which hadst thou rather been,
This still-born foetus, or that wretched queen,
To live in pain, with anxious cares oppress'd
By turns exulting, and by turns distress’d;
The sport of fortune, or the but of fate,
 A slave to folly or a tool of state?
Or say, when all the ills of life you view,
My dearest partner, now I turn to you,
Dost thou not envy this embryo's state,
Deriving pleasure from his certain fate?
It broke a fibre from thy womb to part,
But had it liv'd, it might have broke thy heart.
Let us this maxim in our minds instil,

Whatever Heaven does, cannot be ill.

Monday, November 27, 2017

18th Century Poem Expresses Abortion Regret

The following poem was published in the January 1740 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine in London. No author is listed.

* On a Child killed by procured Abortion, in order to hide the Mother's Shame who had been debauched. Supposed to be spoken by the Mother. 

Thou! whose eyes were clos'd in death's pale night,
Ere fate reveal’d thee to my aching fight;
Ambiguous something, by no standard fix’d,
Frail span!  of nought, and of existence mix’d;
Embryo, imperfect as my tort’ring thought,
Sad outcast of existence and of nought;
Thou, who to guilty love first ow'st thy frame,
Whom guilty honour kills to hide its shame,
Dire offspring!  form'd by love's too pleasing pow'r!
Honour's dire victim in a luckless hour!
 Soften the pangs that still revenge thy doom:
Nor, from the dark abyss of nature's womb,
Where back I cast thee, let revolving time
Call up past scenes to aggravate my crime.
Two adverse tyrants rul’d thy wayward fate,
Thyself a helpless victim to their hate;
Love, in spite of honour's dictates, gave thee breath;
Honour, in spite of love, pronounc'd thy death.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Early 20th Century: The Fetus was Unknown Because Pregnancy was Censored...

So I have been busy doing some historical research. I just got back a paper I wrote on fetal imagery—specifically Lennart Nilsson’s photoessay in an April 1965 issue of Life magazine. One thing that I learned that was very surprising to me was the degree to which pregnancy—and by extension the unborn—had little visual presence in the first half of the twentieth century. I was very surprised when I realized the degree to which all things having to do with pregnancy was shrouded in secrecy. Two examples to illustrate: