The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Friday, 22 February 2008

4. Pregnancy: Medical Jurisprudence, Infanticide and Monsterism

My wife is currently 36 weeks pregnant and we are sharing the joy of impending parenthood. From friends, relatives, medical staff, magazines, the internet and so on and so forth we can in no way be said to be suffering from a deficiency of advice or information on the subject, but instinct and a sense of duty to this blog leads me to turn to Pregnancy in the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's Index, where I am referred to Volumes 15, 13 and 16, and the subjects of MEDICAL JURISPRUDENCE, INFANTICIDE and MONSTERS. I begin to suspect that a young couple at the twilight of the 19th century might not have received the same degree of support and reassurance available to us today.

So, in Volume 15, T. Stevenson M.D. of Guy's Hospital tells us that pregnancy "presents one of the widest fields for medico-legal evidence. The limits of age between which it is possible, the limits of utero-gestation, and the signs of pregnancy may all in turn be the subjects of investigation."

The limits of age are a simple enough matter "being limited by the age of puberty on the one hand and the cessation of the monthly flow" on the other. The limits of utero-gestation are "not in England fixed by legislation" but curiously the French code "fixes the extreme limit of three hundred days." This limit is "perhaps never exceeded, if ever reached", which seems fortunate for all parties concerned. Frustratingly, an exact medical definition of the term of gestation is baffled for non-Gallic nations as "[t]he uncertainty of females in fixing the exact date of conception has given rise to the discrepant opinions of physiologists on the subject."

And why is this significant? The following paragraph explains.

"The signs of pregnancy are of the utmost importance to the medical jurist. He may be called upon to pronounce upon the virtue of a female, to sustain or rebut a plea for divorce, to determine whether a capital sentance shall be carried out, or to determine whether it is probable that an heir will be born to an estate. Should he err in his judgement - and mistakes are very possible in the earlier months of utero-gestation - he may commit a grievous wrong."


Medical Jurisprudence is one matter, let us now see what we can learn from Volume 13, W. C. Smith LL. B., Advocate, and the subject of Infanticide.

Firstly, we see that this is a subject of which its history "as an archaic institution has already been referred to in the article FOUNDLING HOSPITALS (vol ix. p. 481)." In opening W. C. Smith acknowledges that principal causes of infanticide have varied in different times and cultures. Where infanticide has served a religious purpose, its victims have primarily been male in atonement for sacrilege as of course the boy "being the nobler child, was preferred." Otherwise victims have primarily been female, as a "positive check" (in the words of Malthus) against "the reckless propogation of children far outrunning the means of subsistence which the energy of the parents can provide", and furthermore it is "because girls cannot provide for themselves that they are killed."

The writer suggests that occurences of infanticide in India were more complex, and he examines the matter in some detail. He reminds us that the "wise action of the British Government" reduced occurence of the practise.

"According to the present law, if the female children fall below a certain percentage in any tract or among any tribe in northern India where infanticide formerly prevailed, the suspected village is placed under police supervision, the cost being charged to the locality. By these measures, together with a strictly enforced system of reporting births and deaths, infanticide has been almost trampled out ; although some of the Rajput clans keep their female offspring suspiciously close to the lowest average which secures them from surveillance."
Oh, those wily Rajputians!

Although earlier in the article the observation is made that "Infanticide still survives among many savage races", we now read that the modern crime "shows no symptom of diminution in the leading nations of Europe."

"In all of them, it is closely connected with illegitimacy in the class of farm and domestic servants. The crime is generally committed by the mother for the purpose of completing the concealment of her shame, and in other cases, where the shame has not survived, in order to escape the burden of her child's support. The paramour sometimes aids in the crime, which is not confined to unmarried mothers."

We learn again of the peculiarities of the French statutes, for in that country "inquiry into paternity is forbidden", leading to the preservation of life "at the expense of morality."

In English law of the 19th century, a child is considered a human being at the moment of birth, and so killing of a child "is homicide - punishable by death - when it dies after birth in consequence of injuries received before, during, or after birth." This leads to niceties of distinction between homicide and abortion - also then a crime, but not a capital offense - the maximum punishment, we are informed, being penal servitude for life.

The author clearly acknowledges the moral complexities of these issues and the problems posed in framing law in the matter. He leaves us,however, in no doubt that he considers abortion to be utterly abhorrent, and is displeased to note that it is a crime which prevailed extensively "even in classes of society in which infanticide proper would not be thought of without a shudder."

It is difficult to imagine that W. C. Smith would be much taken with the moral climate of the modern world and our loss of shame. Still, reading that thirty years prior to publication of Volume 13 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica "a large number of children were murdered for the mere purpose of obtaining the burial money from a benefit club", and reading about the then prevalent "baby-farming houses of London" to which an unwanted child might be sent with payment of a "ridiculously insufficient sum for the maintenance of the child" leading to a "great rate of mortality", does give some evidence that the price of an impaired morality may be worth paying.

And so we come to Volume 16, Charles Creighton, M.A., M.D., and MONSTER. I suppose it goes without saying that this essay, a catalogue of a comprehensive range of birth defects, was not written with the purpose of providing any comforts or reassurance to prospective parents to be. Indeed, it might have proven particularly unfortunate for any Victorian wife to read the paragraphs indicated by the index entry - concerning the possible causes of congenital abnormality. Dr Creighton informs us that "[m]aternal impressions during pregnancy have often been alleged as a cause, and this causation has been discussed at great length by the best authorities. The general opinion seems to be that it is impossible to set aside the influence of subjective states of the mother altogether. The doctrine of maternal impression has often been resorted to when any other explanation was either difficult or inconvenient ; thus, Hippocrates is said to have saved the virtue of a woman who gave birth to a black child by pointing out that there was a picture of a negro on the wall of her chamber." Unwilling as our author is to dismiss this possible explanation of monsterism, which of course has retained its currency in the beliefs practised by Scientologists today, he also offers us the "erratic spontaneity of the embryonic cells and cell-groups" as possible culprit.

One has to hope that detailed accounts of infanticide and five comprehensive pages on the subject of congenital deformity, against, well, nothing at all on the simple biological facts of the process, would not have any kind of negative impression themselves.

[ have gone to the trouble of uploading the entirity of the MONSTER article for your edification here]

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