chapter  5
32 Pages

‘Converting this measure of security into a crime’: the early nineteenth-century abortion laws

WithAngus McLaren

Anthropologists tell us that the intrusion into traditional cultures of western doctors’ elaboration of scientific explanations of the process of procreation can, in the short term, lead to lay persons becoming ‘ignorant’ of the functioning of their own bodies. Such a process could be detected in eighteenth-century England as a new biomedical explanation of procreation diverged from older Galenic beliefs. The result was the splitting of a once common sexual culture. This chapter tests the argument that a similar process took place as new sanctions, justified by medical discoveries, were levied against abortion at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The chapter sketches out the background to the eighteenth-century religious, legal and medical arguments concerning inducement of miscarriage. It also discusses the campaign by humanitarians and jurists to treat abortion severely and the campaign by doctors to eliminate midwives and their nonscientific concepts.