A Roundtable on Reproductive Choice: Abortion and Infanticide in Premodern Europe and the Modern Americas

AHA Session 134
Friday, January 4, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Buckingham Room (Hilton Chicago, Lobby Level)
Jim Schmidt, Northern Illinois University
Sara McDougall, John Jay College, City University of New York
Cassia Roth, University of Georgia
Nazanin Sullivan, Yale University
Felicity Turner, Georgia Southern University

Session Abstract

The roundtable enables historians working with similar materials—primarily legal records—from different historical periods and places to consider what these sources can tell us about the regulation of reproduction, specifically for women, across time and space. By juxtaposing medieval Paris; early modern Spain; the nineteenth-century United States; and twentieth-century Brazil, the roundtable will demonstrate the benefits of both comparative and global approaches to a common historical question: in what ways and why have cities, states, and/or nations sought to regulate women’s reproductive capacities?

Drawing on a range of scattered legal records relating to births of bastards in late medieval Paris, Sara McDougall argues that the church and ideas of sin played a central role in shaping how the city regulated illegitimate births. The legal framework shaped how infant deaths were recorded, and the types of punishment that women who gave birth to such children received.

Shifting to early modern Spain—specifically records of infanticide trials from the sixteenth-century Kingdom of Castile—Nazanin Sullivan argues, like MacDougall, that religion played a central role in shaping the choices women made to murder (or not murder) their children. Nonetheless, suggests Sullivan, the volatility of the religious climate in Reformation Spain provided women with some ability to negotiate within the legal system to achieve beneficial outcomes.

The ability of women accused of infanticide to negotiate with and within the legal system is a recurring theme that also emerges within the work of Felicity Turner, who focuses on illegitimate births and reproduction in the nineteenth-century United States. Drawing principally from inquest records, Turner argues that the informality of legal processes at the inquest stage enabled women in the US south, including enslaved and free black women, to escape prosecution for the alleged crime. In contrast to premodern Paris and sixteenth-century Spain, the church was absent from these investigations, an absence that may have shaped the more favorable outcomes for women in the nineteenth-century United States.

Finally, Cassia Roth considers changing trends in infanticide laws in Brazil at the national level, rather than the regional or local. Examining the shift from the nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century, Roth argues that even as national law gradually became more draconian, actual prosecutions of infanticide at the local level remained consistent with the practice described by Turner in relation to the US south. Regardless of race, women accused of infanticide generally escaped prosecution and/or escaped punishment for the crime if found guilty.

A conversation between historians working at the intersection of law, regulation, and reproduction from different places and a range of time periods, the roundtable will appeal to historians of gender, sexuality, and the family from a variety of regions and historical eras. Placed together, the observations of these scholars demonstrate the changing role of religion in shaping law and responses to females’ reproductive choices; the dissonance between the formal or codified law and lived experience; and the significance of race in shaping law and regulatory regimes in relation to reproduction.

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