The pro-choice case for abortion rights rests partly on the possessive pronoun. My body, my choice. Keep your rosaries off my ovaries. These slogans are predicated on the idea that a woman owns her internal organs, and that this ownership is what entitles her to make decisions about them. I once accepted this idea without much thought. Then I had an abortion. It was my abdomen under the ultrasound wand, my uterus on the grainy screen, my body anaesthetised on the clinic table; in some formal sense, my ownership of my ovaries had got me into this predicament and also allowed me to escape it. But the idea that I owned, controlled or chose anything about the procedure was so incongruous with the actual sensation of aborting that I had to remind myself, in between the waves of nausea and cramping, that I was exercising a right conceded to me, for which I should be grateful. Mostly it just hurt.
Now that I am pregnant again, bodily autonomy seems even more immaterial. As historians of reproduction have argued, the understanding that a woman can govern her pregnancy is a historically specific one, dateable to increasingly accurate home pregnancy tests and medical imaging. Women are encouraged to believe that the course of pregnancy is controllable, indeed that it’s your responsibility to control it. I don’t feel as though an invading alien has seized the levers of my body, which is the way some women describe pregnancy, but rather that the concept of control doesn’t enter into the calculus of gestation at all. Nearly every week of pregnancy yields something stranger, generously interpreted by fellow pregnant people on the internet but only in the numinous way that one might interpret tea leaves or the flight patterns of birds.
The concept of body ownership is premised on dualism: the idea that one’s thinking self can exercise rights over one’s material self. This too is historically particular. In early modern Europe, mind and body were understood to be mingled, and this was a source of anxiety when it came to gestation. A pregnant woman who experienced a shock – being bitten by a dog, or confronted by a beggar – was in danger of giving birth to a deformed baby. A woman who longed for a particular food but couldn’t fulfil her craving (for juicy strawberries out of season, perhaps) might deliver a child with a telltale strawberry-shaped birthmark. In inheritance disputes, a cuckolded husband’s lawyers might argue in court that his wife had imagined her husband’s face while having sex with her lover, so that the resulting infant would resemble her husband and her adultery remain concealed. There was a wild power in the maternal imagination.
The slightest disorder during pregnancy – badly aligned stars, stagnant air, intestinal gas, a sneeze – could shake loose a foetus ‘like fruit [from] a tree’, according to one 16th-century jurist. The body was not only shaped by the imagination and the senses, but by the environment and the heavenly spheres, as well as by one’s neighbours and midwives. Elena Cocchi testified against her abusive husband in Rome in 1634, accusing him of causing her to miscarry. But she had been unsure about the pregnancy, even though it was not her first. ‘When I began to know that I was pregnant, I had my midwife Dianora, who has [helped] deliver my other children, come and I told her I wondered whether I was pregnant and she looked at me and said I was and from that point I began to grow.’ Pregnancy was partly conceived in the womb and partly conferred by others.
Pregnancy was also pathological. Maria, from a village outside Rome, had been involved with Superio, a wealthy legume dealer who was also her uncle. (He kept a mattress secreted in his bean storeroom for sex.) Her pregnancy threatened to reveal the scandal to their neighbours. Superio purchased an abortifacient from a toothless 89-year-old friar, who wandered the countryside practising both pharmacology and exorcism. The difference between being possessed by a demon and possessed by an unwanted foetus was a matter of degree, not kind. Pregnancy and abortion were not understood as the battleground for conflicts over bodily autonomy; rather, gestation revealed the vulnerability of existing in a body in which someone else lives and dies. The maternal body was responsive to the imagination, the stars, a fart, a midwife’s touch. Pregnancy was a different kind of possession – not something one owned, but the fact of being possessed by another.
An aborted pregnancy was a disgravidanza, an unpregnancy, or might be described as a parto acerbo, an unripe birth. Judges described abortion in the language of corruption, waste, disorder and ruin. Women’s language was more ordinary, and colder. Giving evidence to tribunals, they called an aborted foetus a creatura; an earlier-stage abortion a pezzo di carne, a piece of meat. Abortion was shared work, because men like Superio needed abortions to happen just as much as women did. Men procured herbal concoctions from physicians and apothecaries, arranged for bloodletting (from the ‘vein of the mother’, located on the foot), or – in truly desperate cases – beat their partners’ backs and abdomens.
It’s likely that the majority of abortions were sought by married couples who did not want any more children, but these were entirely private and so have gone unrecorded. John Christopoulos has meticulously pieced together a secret history not only from prescriptive sources but from the public records of trials, giving us for the first time a sense of the way early modern women and men experienced abortion. Trials inevitably centred on the most scandalous cases, but in the background of these tales of rape and incest, Christopoulos shows a more ordinary history: the quiet purchase of a bitter drink from an apothecary, the flux and the pain, burying the stained bedsheets out by the stable. The lifecycle of an abortion was completed in the spring. Men and women made confession once a year, at Easter, when they strung together their sins for the parish priest and waited for discreet absolution.
The Catholic Church claims to have held abortion to be a mortal sin since the first century. This is untrue. For most of the Church’s history, Catholic theologians believed that the moral and physical gravity of abortion developed with gestation. An early pregnancy was easily lost and had not yet been endowed by God with a soul; animation was thought to take place at forty days for a male foetus and eighty days for a female. This aligned with contemporary medical thinking. According to Aristotelian and Galenic theory, these were the points at which foetuses achieved human shape (the female sex was colder and moister, so took longer to congeal into human form in the womb). Before the moment of animation, the unformed foetus might be aborted and the pregnant woman only incur mild sin; only at the later stage was it considered human, and its destruction equivalent to homicide. Most Italians, not just learned theologians and physicians, subscribed to this more nuanced understanding of abortion: one midwife in Rome reported in 1634 that her usual professional practice was to ‘throw aborted foetuses that do not have a soul in the latrine, and I do not baptise them because they are not alive’.
This thinking was radically revised by Pope Sixtus V in his 1588 bull on abortion, the first the Catholic Church had ever issued. The bull was part of Sixtus’s reformist campaign against sexual forms of moral deviance; he had issued harsh laws against adultery and incest in 1586 and 1587. In his abortion bull, he abolished the distinction between the pre and post-animate foetus and declared that life began at conception. All abortions were murder. Women who had abortions, and men who helped women procure them, would be subject to automatic excommunication from the Church and capital punishment. No longer could women privately confess their abortions to their parish priest and receive penance; now, only the pope himself could absolve them. The result was that most women decided to live excommunicate. Parish priests and bishops found the bull so impossible to implement and so out of step with the social need both for abortion and privacy that it was reversed three years later by a new pope. The Church’s understanding of abortion once again cleaved closely to gestational development. This remained the status quo until 1869, when Pope Pius IX proclaimed that ensouled life began at conception.
Because the significance of abortion – and the severity of the consequences – developed along with the pregnancy, women had to be trusted to discern the gestational age of the foetus, to distinguish indigestion from early foetal movement, dropsy from the heaviness of pregnancy. As Christopoulos argues, this suggests ‘a uniquely gendered experience of time, where a woman’s days might be dominated by intense concentration on perceiving and evaluating physical sensations’, waiting in hope or in fear. Maria da Brescia, a single servant woman in Bologna accused of abortion in 1577, thought she had eaten some bad onions, and took to bed with wind pains; when she got up to use the toilet, she explained to the judge, ‘I expelled that creatura on the floor, dead, it did not cry … I had never been pregnant and I did not know what I had in my body. I thought I had a bubble in my body.’ A woman in Tivoli had believed herself pregnant for fifteen months, before she finally ‘passed a great amount of wind from her womb and her belly deflated’.
Equally difficult was determining the difference between an aborted foetus, a stillbirth and infanticide. Tribunals required evidence that a woman had intentionally terminated her pregnancy or had killed the infant shortly after birth. Midwives were enrolled by tribunals as forensics experts to examine the bodies of the mother and the foetus, assigned the near impossible task of assembling evidence of intent. In 1610, a young woman called Lucia from outside Bologna – she had concealed her pregnancy and intended to abandon the infant at Bologna’s foundling hospital – delivered a stillborn baby at seven months. Two midwives examined her as part of the ensuing tribunal and evaluated the testimonies of witnesses. The midwives reported that Lucia had recently given birth and had not yet delivered the placenta; they could feel it throbbing dangerously in her uterus. The foetus was female, fully formed with hair and fingernails, and had still been warm when it was wrapped in Lucia’s shirt. While there were no obvious signs of violence on the body, the midwives told the court that Lucia hadn’t tied the umbilical cord in a knot but had torn it. This allowed the infant’s breath fatally to escape its body, puff by puff. Lucia was defiant. ‘It was not [born] alive, and I will never be able to say why it was not, and I cannot do anything about this, I cannot supersede the one who is the master of the whole world: it pleased God that it was born dead, and I don’t know what to make of it.’
The ambiguities of pregnancy, miscarriage, stillbirth and abortion were the foundation for sympathetic tolerance as well as misogyny. The opacity of women’s bodies and intentions could create sufficient uncertainty to allow judges and confessors to look the other way. This looks something like mercy when compared with the torture that goes on today in clinics in Kentucky, where women are required by law to view their foetus on an ultrasound screen and listen to its heartbeat before determining whether to come back for an abortion. But precisely because in the early modern period a gestating, miscarrying or aborting body was a mystery to be solved, women could be subject to invasive practices of a different sort. Pity Bianca Cappello, whose pregnancy could not be confirmed even after ‘four or five of [Florence’s] best physicians looked at and touched my body up to the meat.’
A pregnant woman could not always disguise her intentions. Maria was accused of aborting a foetus in 1614, after her incestuous relationship with Superio was made public. Dragged in front of the tribunal, she denied everything. She was tortured and maintained her innocence, claiming she had taken purgatives for a menstrual illness. But her body betrayed her. Three midwives examined Maria and found her genitals puffy and stretched, her belly ‘flabby’ and ‘wrinkly’, her breasts leaking milk. When she tried to claim she was lactating because of a menstrual disorder, the midwives scoffed: ‘My girl, a young woman who has not been pregnant and who has not given birth cannot have milk the way you do.’ They went on to ridicule her, asking if she thought her milk ‘came from the heavens’. When Maria was examined in her prison cell, investigators noted a scar on her foot, evidence of bloodletting from the ‘vein of the mother’. Maria’s body gave her away more plainly than any confession by torture.
Put in front of tribunals, women knew to emphasise their vulnerability when faced by duplicitous men. In 1586, a widow called Aorelia was accused of either aborting a late-term foetus or murdering a newborn baby – the midwives couldn’t tell which – and burying it under a chestnut tree. When questioned, she told the tribunal that her partner Pietro had lived with her openly, promising to look after her, providing her with money and food: ‘Seeing as I am poor and that I cannot sustain my aforesaid family … he helped me and did what he could to help raise my children.’ But Pietro remembered their relationship differently.
I came and went, both day and night, from the said Aorelia’s house, as I wanted and as it pleased me, and I slept there, and I screwed her at my convenience, and I gave her money, when I had it, and I screwed her like the whore that she is, as did other [men]. I cannot say who else screwed her, but I heard it said publicly that this woman is screwed by diverse people.
The scripts were well-worn. Men cast doubt on their partners’ sexual past – whose baby was buried under that tree, anyway? – while women framed themselves as victims.
Most of the time, the judges’ paternalism won out: they knew that economic need could be a powerful incentive to sex and so to abortion, and were inclined to leniency when presented with a compelling plea of fragilitas sexus. This might seem at first glance an admirable, even surprising, form of tolerance, but as Christopoulos persuasively argues, this discretionary mercy reinforced the misogyny of the judicial system empowered to grant it. Aorelia shaped her testimony to prick the judge’s conscience. The pleas have changed, of course – our placards now argue that abortion is healthcare, healthcare is a human right – but a right conferred is a right that can be abruptly withdrawn. Aorelia knew that. So did Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s mourners when they prostrated themselves in front of the Supreme Court.
‘I am sometimes envious of the horrible circumstances of the past,’ Anne Boyer wrote, ‘because they are at least differently horrible and differently degraded than our era’s own.’ Christopoulos’s accomplished account emphasises the ambiguities and ambivalences that surrounded pregnancy and its termination in early modern Italy. There is much that was differently horrible and differently degraded about abortion’s past in his telling, but is there anything to covet? In 1593, Mattia, an impoverished agricultural worker in the Veneto who had been repeatedly raped by her father, was accused of aborting a foetus. She defended herself to the court. ‘I did not know I was pregnant, and I was working in the fields. This harmed me, and I miscarried. The foetus slipped out like a slice of ham.’ I am not envious of this past, not really. Abortion is safer now, after medicalisation and legalisation. But safer isn’t safe, and safety isn’t everything. If abortion is a right, it is a flimsy one, predicated on the whims of judges and a property relation to the body that obscures everything that is real and radical about gestation. Maybe there is something we can learn from a time when pregnancy was possession, not of but by another; when an unwanted foetus was as precious as a slice of ham, and abortion as cleansing as an exorcism.
Listen to Erin Maglaque discuss this piece on the LRB Podcast