Monday, June 11, 2018

The Status of the Unborn in 18th Century France

Anatomie des parties de la génértion de l’homme
et de la femme
by Jacques Fabien Gautier D'Agoty

I am researching the evolution of attitudes towards the unborn in order to understand how changing attitudes towards them led to the loosening of abortion laws in France and other parts of the world. Catholic France in the 18th century had much more to say about the unborn than 18th century Protestant England. The French were not only concerned with the unborn because of abortion; they were concerned about the unborn because of the desire to baptize all babies, and because of issues of succession. An unborn baby could inherit under specific circumstances, and the mother stood to benefit from the child’s inheritance.

Before I delve into the nature moral status of the unborn, it is important to clarify some issues regards what the people knew about embryology. There was quite a bit of confusion on the matter. There were those who believed that life began at conception, due to the philosophical conclusions of 17th century writers. But there was no empirical proof of this. And because there lacked empirical proof that human life began at conception, there was some doubt about the timing of the animation of the embryo. The timing of animation was considered when an embryo became a human being.  As cell theory was not developed until the 1840’s, the 18th century scientist who researched embryology considered the presence of functioning organs as proof of life.   But scientists knew that the conceptus existed before the development of these organs.  Many writers uncertain as to whether this conceptus constituted a life or not.  

The three main theories of development were ovism, spermatism and epigenetics. Epigenetics—not to be confused with modern field of epigenetics—considers that the embryo is not pre-existent, that elements like the sperm and the egg somehow make it possible for this new entity to acquire human characteristics. Ovism and spermatism held that the embryo, or its germ, pre-existed in either the egg or the sperm, respectively, and that the fertilization process essentially allowed for the unfolding of an entity that already existed. The fact that the embryo pre-existed did not mean that scientists held that the embryo was animated. Ensoulment was proven by the presence of human form. Thus, when researchers or theologians discussed “formed” or “unformed” embryos, they were discussing whether the embryo was human or non-human.

This presence of the human form was central to the French idea of the unborn.  Legally, an embryo was considered to be “formed” and thus animated at 40 days past conception [1] because they had an organized body, that is, a head, torso, arms and legs.  [2]

Although the unborn were considered to be human beings once they were formed, they were not considered juridical persons. Heavily influenced by Roman Law, France considered that birth conferred rights [3]. That being said, even though the unborn, of himself, did not possess rights, he was considered to possess rights in anticipation of his birth when it was in his interest to have them. [4]

And it was under this concept of anticipated rights that abortion was criminalized in France. But only those considered after 40 days of conception were considered true homicides;[5]. Those committed before that time were likened to homicide, but not considered a genuine murder.  For abortions after formation, both the mother and the abortionist could be subject to the death penalty. [6]

France had a peculiar way of prosecuting abortion (not to say infanticide.) According to an edict of 1556, a woman who was pregnant out of wedlock was obliged to report her pregnancy to authorities; if she failed to do so, and her offspring was found dead, she was automatically assumed to be guilty of child murder, whether the child was viable or not. This assumption of guilt was to compensate for the difficulty in prosecuting abortion cases. It was assumed that since a single woman who intended abortion or infanticide would hide her pregnancy, the remedy was to make sure that she did not hide her pregnancy, in which case she would be far less likely to abort her children. If she did not declare her pregnancy, nothing would happen to her if her child were born alive; but if the child were born dead, she would have to prove her innocence.

Laws about abortion were no the only ways in which French society showed its concern for the unborn. There was a great degree of anxiety among pious Catholics about making sure all children were baptized, including miscarried babies and those being birthed who were in danger of death. Great pains were taken to ensure that these children received the sacrament. For instance, babies who were in danger of death during labour were baptized by the midwife or obstetrician; if the head could not be reached, they used a syringe or sponge to apply the water in the womb. If the mother died in labour, the child was to be extracted, either naturally or through c-section. If the baby was miscarried, baptism was supposed to be performed, either absolutely or conditionally.

But these values were held by an informed elite and were not necessarily shared by the masses. For instance, it was not uncommon for miscarried babies to be thrown into the privy, unexamined and unbaptized after miscarriage [7].  Considering that several guides had to be written encouraging the baptism of these children, it suggests that the practice was not commonplace [8]; if it had to be repeatedly said by many writers that baptism was necessary, it is because the populace was ignorant.

So what we see then is that institutionally, French society was pro-life: the law upheld the humanity of the unborn and criminalized abortion, but did not consider fetuses to be persons. Medical personnel and the Church promoted the baptism of the unborn and miscarried; but the general population were not necessarily aware of these points of view.   

[1] Daniel Jousse, Traité de la justice criminelle de France, Volume 4, Paris: 1771, P. 20;  Pierre Jean J.G. Guyot, Répertoire universel et raisonné de jurisprudence civile, criminelle, canonique et bénéficiale, Volume 4, Paris: 1776, p. 147 in footnote.
[2] M. La Fosse, "Avortement," Supplément À L'Encyclopédie Ou Dictionnaire Raisonné Des Sciences, Des Arts Et Des Métiers, Volume 1, Paris, 1776, p. 718.
[3] Massuet, Pierre. La Science Des Personnes De Cour, D'Epée Et De Robe Amsterdam: 1752, p. 10. 
[4] D'Aguesseau, "Essai sur l'État des Personnes," Oeuvres,  Vol. 5 p.  443. Massuet, p. 10
[5] D'Aguesseau, p. 447.
[6] D'Aguesseau, p. 455, 461.
[8] Jerome Florentini wrote the first major work on this topic in 1658: On Doubtful Men, or On the Baptism of Abortuses; then Francesco Cangiamila wrote his opus Sacred Embryology in 1751 which was translated into French by Abbé Dinouart in 1762. Bl. Jean-Martin Moye, inspired by this work, wrote his own pamphlet in 1764. Midwives and accoucheurs had to be reminded to baptize the unborn and the miscarried; See for example: Marguerite de la Marche,. Instruction familiere et utile aux sages-femmes pour bien pratiquer les accouchemens. 1710, p.101ff;  François-Ange Deleurye, Traité des accouchemens, en faveur des eleves, Paris: 1777, p. 719;   Angélique Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray, Abbregé de l'art des acchouchemens, Saintes: 1779, page vii and page 89.

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 18th 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.