Winifride Prestwich

Is there any truth in the claim that abortion was not legally forbidden until the 19th century?

-J.S. Nepean

No. It is a matter of historic fact that, from the early Middle Ages, English common law (the basis of law in Canada, the U.S. and other English-speaking countries) has forbidden abortion at any stage of human development, and established criminal penalties for abortion after “quickening.”

Today, we know so much about the baby’s development in the womb that it is hard to realize that until relatively recently it was only when the mother felt the baby move that the child was “quick” meaning “alive.” (In the part of England where I grew up, the word “quick” for “alive” was common usage.) Blackstone in has famous Commentaries on the Laws of England (1796) stated: “Life…begins in contemplation of law as soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother’s womb.”

It should be added that the Criminal Law was not the only legal mechanism employed by the state to prohibit abortion. In a brief to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, June 1, 1981, Victor G, Rosenblum, professor of law and political science at Northwestern University in Illinois, stated that as early as 1452, “Continental Europe possessed a municipal system of law regulating the practice of midwifery… and England had enacted similar regulations by 1512. In every case such regulations forbade the midwife to perform or induce abortion.”

Professor Rosenblum quotes the case of New York City:

“On July 27, 1716, the common Council of New York City enacted ‘A Law Regulating Mid Wives within the City of New York’ which required all midwives to take a solemn oath before the Mayer, the recorder, or an alderman, to abide by its provisions before they might practise their profession. Default and failure to be so licensed were heavily fined; enforcement could be secured by the civil authority or by private prosecution. In part the oath read: ‘You shall not Give and counsel or Administer any Herb Medicine or Potion, or any other thing to any Women being with child whereby She Should Destroy or Miscarry or that she goeth with all before her time.’”

The law remained in effect at least until the American War of Independence. Professor Rosenblum added that since this 1716 law required anyone who assisted women in pregnancy and childbirth to be licensed and to abide by the provisions forbidding abortion, “it in effect proscribed abortion in a manner analogous to the statuses enacted in the next century.

I need quotations to show that Christianity condemned abortion in the early days of the Church. C.M. Vancouver

Tertullian, and early doctor of the Church, lived from about 155AD to 220AD. He wrote:

“For us murder is once for all forbidden, so even the child in the womb, while yet the mother’s blood is still being drawn To form the human being, it is not lawful for us to destroy. To forbid birth is only quicker murder. It makes no difference whether one take away the life once born or destroys it as it comes to birth. He is a man, who is to be a man; the fruit is always present in the seed.”

As early as 117 AD Athenagoras wrote: “How can we possibly kill anyone, we who call those women murderers who take drugs to induce an abortion, we who say they will have to give an account before God one day.”

In the 4th century, St. Basil wrote: “The hairsplitting difference between formed and unformed makes no difference to us. Whoever deliberately commits abortion is subject to the penalty for homicide.”

Toronto Right to Life has an excellent pamphlet by Donald De Marco titled, The Roman Catholic Church and Abortion: An Historical Perspective.