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Common Law Review
 
Domù arrow Èlánky arrow Issue 5 - Medical Law arrow 05: Petr Gajdušek - Quickening Doctrine
05: Petr Gajdušek - Quickening Doctrine PDF Tisk E-mail

Quickening Doctrine

Petr Gajdušek

 

 

Quickening Doctrine – Short Explanation of the Term

 

Quickening doctrine was one of the milestones of abortion policy in USA. Even though it was abandoned in 19th century, its impact is still visible. The notion of quickening (it is the term for animation or formation of foetus)[1] was a venerable, woman-centred concept, long embedded in the common law. It allowed that a pregnancy could not be confirmed until the woman felt the foetus[2] move within her body.[3]

 

In the days before drugstore pregnancy kits, sonograms and rabbit tests, and all the other modern methods of verifying pregnancy, the woman herself was the definitive expert. Doctors and midwives agreed that menstrual irregularity - in fact, all the symptoms of pregnancy - could be associated with conditions other than pregnancy. So traditionally, it was not until the woman reported the sensation of foetal movement that she could be declared pregnant. Consequently, an abortion in the early months of pregnancy - often treated as an operation to restore the woman's menstrual flow by removing a "blockage" - was not considered a crime. During all of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century, the quickening doctrine governed abortion law in the North American English colonies, and then in the United States.[4]

                                               

Recognising of Abortion in Early English Society

Before the description of quickening doctrine in USA, it is necessary to explain its role in early English society that provided legal background and in fact started to use the term "quickening". A legal blind eye to early abortion has been routine in Western history. Surprisingly, given the importance of the Catholic Church as an adamant crusader against abortion today, the standard was articulated by a Catholic, the thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas, whose teachings are still considered by many to be a cornerstone of Catholic doctrine. The question was: at what point does a foetus become a person with a soul? Aquinas challenged the previously held Aristotelian view that the soul entered the foetus "forty days after conception for a male and eighty to ninety days for a female." He held that the "rational soul" enters the foetus of either sex upon quickening, the time when the foetus first moves within a woman's body. Quickening generally occurs in the beginning of the fourth month of pregnancy.

Scholars have generally agreed that Aquinas's assumption was adopted by European common law courts and was brought to colonial America by British common law, thus forbidding abortion after quickening.[5] However, even this limitation on abortion has been questioned by law professor Cyril C. Means, Jr., who claimed in a 1971 law review article that his research showed that "pre-nineteenth century Anglo-American common law was totally silent on the subject and didn't even include 'quickening' as a cut-off point." [6]Although Anglo-Saxon views of the development of the child in utero are not well documented, one pre-Norman tradition has been preserved in the manuscript: Cotton Tiberius A.III, compiled in Canterbury, Kent in about 1050 A.D. It is uncertain whether this passage records pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon beliefs or early medieval Anglo-Christian beliefs - Christianity having had a foothold in England for 400 years prior to this manuscript.[7] It is known, however, that abortion was both a civil and an ecclesiastical offence in Anglo-Saxon law, punished mainly by ecclesiastical authority.[8] Before the Norman invasion, all ecclesiastical matters were prosecuted in the local assemblies, the shire-, hundred-, and borough-moots in which the "folcriht" (folk-right) - the customary, common, law of the people - was enforced. Because there was no separate ecclesiastical court system, the local bishop was final authority in all ecclesiastical matters, and spiritual authority was enforced alongside the folcriht with no sharp division between spiritual and secular jurisdictions. For example, both the bishop and the king's local representative, the shire-reeve (sheriff), presided over the shire-moot.

The earliest known common law view of abortion is expressed in the writings attributed to the cleric Henry de Bracton (c.1250). His statement of the English view was that:

If there is anyone who strikes a pregnant woman or gives her a poison which produces an abortion, if the foetus be already formed or animated, and especially if it be animated, he commits homicide.[9]

In summary, abortion was a recognised evil in English society, and an offence originally handled and punished by ecclesiastical authorities, with spiritual penalty and, ultimately, bodily punishment and imprisonment.[10] The English ecclesiastical courts actively prosecuted tortiously-caused miscarriages as well as intentionally induced abortions. The early English common law position largely accorded with the canon law and ecclesiastic court activity forms part of the common law heritage.

Because abortion and miscarriage were primarily a canon law matter, as civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions separated, the common law had few opportunities, at bar, to develop and apply common law doctrines therein. Yet, the common law adopted a synthesis of Bracton with canon law: a focus on quickening as distinct from formation, so as to attribute humanity to the quickened alone. As it was clearly based in medieval thought regarding foetal development from animal to human, this view saw quickening as instantaneously imbuing the foetus with living humanness. Over time, this "rational quickening" position was amended with evidentiary requirements so that, for purposes of homicide law alone, common law courts would attribute as living and human only those infants born alive and born human.[11]

This principle of retroactive attribution was misunderstood by a number of later common law scholars and so led to their creation of an independent, erroneous line of thought in which the child was considered a living human only during the period ex utero. When ecclesiastical jurisdiction was phased out and abortion, along with the remainder of criminal law jurisdiction, was transferred from the Church to the common law courts, Chief Justice Coke, in assimilating and harmonizing the canon law actions with the common law, extended existing common law doctrines in defining feticide in utero as a misprision, or lesser crime.

Finally, in 1803, during the last years of the heyday of Preformationism -- which saw the foetus as a microscopic, fully formed human from conception -- Parliament recognized that the common law approach had been ineffective in dealing with the offence of abortion, and enacted Lord Ellenborough’s Act. This Act had an influence on American law: the first U.S. anti-abortion statute was based upon it. However, the bulk of American legislation was enacted during the period, and under the influence, of early modern embryology, the ultimate force for change in the law of the unborn.[12]

Aboetion and Quickening Doctrine in Early USA

Abortion refers to the purposeful termination of a pregnancy. Millions of girls and women have sought and received abortions during the two eras when the procedure was legal (eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century and 1973 to the present) and during the era of its criminalisation (mid-nineteenth century to 1973).[13]

Legislative, medical, judicial, religious, political, and popular responses to abortion have constrained or enabled access to abortion services in both legal and criminal eras. Across the history of the United States, females have obtained abortions in very large numbers, no matter what the prevailing legal status and public attitudes toward the procedure. For example, during the 1950s, when abortion was illegal, U.S. public-health experts estimated that as many as one million criminal abortions were performed each year.

When contraception failed, as it was often wont to do, there was abortion. Abortion in the early nineteenth century simply did not elicit the controversy or comment as today (though it was rarely discussed as openly). Though not openly encouraged, it was not necessarily condemned out of hand if carried out early in the pregnancy. Many believed it permissible if done before "quickening", or movement by the foetus, which usually occurred in the second trimester. The first anti-abortion law was enacted in Connecticut in 1821, but it was basically an anti-poisoning law that stipulated it a crime if the woman was "quick with child".[14] It aimed to avoid women using dangerous medications and other devices for the purpose of pregnancy termination.

Colonial home medical guides gave recipes for "bringing on the menses" with herbs that could be grown in one's garden or easily found in the woods. By the mid eighteenth century commercial preparations were so widely available that they had inspired their own euphemism ("taking the trade"). Unfortunately, these drugs were often fatal. The first statutes regulating abortion, passed in the 1820s and 1830s, were actually poison-control laws: the sale of commercial abortifacients was banned, but abortion per se was not.[15]   

In essence, the law was aimed at doctors or potion-sellers whose medicines might cause an unwanted abortion. Quickening was the decisive issue every time abortion was raised in court prior to 1840. If the abortion took place before quickening, it was not adjudged a crime. Indiana made abortions illegal in 1835 according to the distinction regarding quickening. Most "laws enacted between 1820 and 1840 retained the quickening doctrine and attempted to protect women from unwanted abortion, rather than prosecute them."[16]

Between 1821 and 1840, 10 out of 26 states enacted laws that included provisions on abortion. In five states these applied only to abortions after "quickening." The others applied prior to quickening, but were largely unenforceable because it was difficult to determine whether a woman was pregnant.[17]

Abortion, however, was not considered a significant "means of family limitation" during the first third of the century. It was mainly viewed as a way of avoiding the scandal attached to an illicit affair or birth out of wedlock. However, by the late 1830s a change in the type of person seeking abortions and, and the reasons behind it, became evident. The rising abortion rate of the period probably reflected a desire on the part of married women to limit family size. It is estimated that the abortion rate jumped from one abortion in every 25-35 live births during 1800-1830 to one in every 5-6 live births by 1850. These figures may be a bit high (evidence is still sketchy), but they are indicative of a trend.[18]

 As the above indicates, abortion, like birth control information, became more available between 1830 and 1850. That period saw a mail order and retail abortifacient drug trade flourish. A woman could send away for certain pills or discreetly purchase them at a store. Surgical methods were "available, but dangerous." This openness and commercial availability was mainly a feature of northern urban areas. Like much other technological and cultural change, it was later in its arrival in the Midwest, and the average Midwestern woman probably had a more difficult time in obtaining an abortion than her eastern, urban counterpart if she desired one. In essence, the pioneer woman's body was much less her than that of her modern counterpart. Indeed, it was much less her own than her contemporaries living in northern urban areas. The woman from Midwest of USA of 1800-1850 was more exposed to disease, more unhealthy conditions, more of life's hazards, than most of her gender living in other parts of the country. As with other aspects of her life, her existence was a problematic one. Yet, hampered by ignorance, exposed to a myriad number of diseases, she survived, even flourished.[19]

In the first decades of nationhood, the legal status of the procedure was governed by British common law that viewed abortion before quickening as a legal act. After quickening[20], destruction of the foetus without cause was considered a crime[21].[22] Many women of that era were aware of and employed herbal and other remedies that caused abortion, sometimes with the assistance of midwives or physicians who consented to remove "menstrual blockages". Enslaved African American women used abortion to resist coerced reproduction and slavery itself, employing the knowledge of African-based midwifery culture and folk medicine.

 

U. S. Law and Doctrine of Quickening in 19th and 20th Century

 

Sometimes the issue of quickening made for enormously complicated abortion persecutions. In the early decades of the twentieth century.  For example, the state of Wisconsin had one anti-abortion statute with two distinct sections. One section made it an "offence against Chastity, Morality, and Decency" to produce a miscarriage by destroying embryonic life. An individual who caused such a miscarriage was not considered to have committed an offence against a person, since an embryo - before quickening - did not have the legal status of personhood. The law indicated that the individual who caused an early miscarriage committed merely a considerably lesser offence against morality.

 

The second section of the statute dealt with abortion as an "Offence against Lives and Persons". Legislators intended for this section to be used to prosecute abortionists who caused a miscarriage in a woman carrying a "quick child". This crime was unequivocally an act of homicide, specifically, manslaughter in the second degree.[23]

 

The End of Quickening Doctrine

 

Having worked successfully with a number of state legislatures to enact antiabortion laws, medical doctors intensified their campaign after the founding of the American Medical Association in 1847. Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer led efforts that resulted in anti-abortion statutes in every state by the end of the nineteenth century. The new laws were a triumph for physicians now fully invested with scientific authority.  Midwives and "irregular" doctors were excluded as legitimate abortion practitioners, and the women-centred "quickening" doctrine was abandoned. The new laws were sharply moralistic.  For example, they deepened the stigma attached to abortion by associating it with "obscenity." In addition, the laws reflected a triumph for sexual conservatism and medical doctors' determination to block middle-class women from employing abortion as a tool for resisting traditional roles and facilitating new ones.[24]

The Development of Abortion Policy After Quickening Doctrine

During and after this period abortion became much less visible. Advertising was suppressed as obscene. A sympathetic doctor might perform an abortion under another name. Others might justify abortion for the sake of the mother's health. A steady business in illegal abortions, some of which were incompetent and unsafe, continued. Eventually, the development of surgical abortion using standard antiseptic methods made abortion more effective and safer for the mother. The introduction of penicillin in the 20th century reduced the incidence of maternal death enormously. By the mid 20th century, decisions about abortion often went to hospital review boards. There were also several groups arguing that abortion laws should be changed.  In 1959, the American Law Institute proposed revisions that were used by a number of states. In the 1960s, an outbreak of German measles (which often causes serious birth defects) led to more abortions. Some doctors, fearing prosecution, argued for more liberal laws. In 1969 Planned Parenthood supported the repeal of anti-abortion laws. In 1970 Hawaii and New York repealed, but in 1972 a referendum to liberalize the law in Michigan was defeated. The sudden and far reaching change came only after 1973 when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that a Texas anti-abortion statute was unconstitutional. [25]

Conclusion

From the Christian point of view, abortion is unacceptable. From general point of view, every human being (no matter whether foetus or adult) requires to be protected even in pre-natal period. The time when quickening occurs is highly variable and cannot be considered as a life manifestation. Only in cases when a life of woman is in serious danger because of pregnancy, purposeful termination is permissible. My opinions correspond to what Abraham Lincoln said in the middle of 19th century. Even though this statement was made 150 years ago, I believe it is still applicable. Lincoln recognized that we could not survive as a free land when some men could decide that others were not fit to be free and should therefore be slaves.

“Likewise, we cannot survive as a free nation when some men decide that others are not fit to live and should be abandoned to abortion or infanticide. [. . .] There is no cause more important for preserving that freedom than affirming the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning.” [26]

 



[1] Cyril C. Means, The Law of New York Concerning Abortion and the Status of the Fetus, 1664-1968, New York Law Forum 14 (1968), p. 420.

[2] Foetus; an unborn child. The unborn offspring of any viviparous animal; specifically the unborn offspring of the postembryonic period after major structures have been outlined (in man from seven or eight weeks after fertilisation until birth.) Black's Law Dictionary, 6th ed., 1990

[3] Rickie Solinger, The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law (New York: The Free Press, 1994),page 11-12

[4] ibid,at page 12.

[5] Judith Hole and Ellen Levine, Rebirth of Feminism (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1971; reprint paper, 1973), pp. 279-80 text and fn. 4

[6] Cyril C. Means, Jr., "The Phoenix of Abortional Freedom: Is a Penumbral or Ninth-Amendment Right About to Arise from the Nineteenth-Century Legislative Ashes of a Fourteenth-Century Common-Law Liberty?" 17 N.Y. Law Forum 335 (1971) as summarized in Presley and Cooke, "The Right to Abortion," p. 6 cited in Mark S. Scott, Note, Quickening in the Common Law: The Legal Precedent Roe Attempted and Failed to Use, 1 Mich. L. & Pol'y Rev., page 199 (1996).

[7] Mark S. Scott, Note, Quickening in the Common Law: The Legal Precedent Roe Attempted and Failed to Use, 1 Mich. L. & Pol'y Rev. page :199 (1996).

 

[8] G. Grisez, Abortion: The Myths, The Realities, and the Arguments 186-87 (1970); J. Stephen, 1 History of the Criminal Law of England 54 (1883), cited in Cyril C. Means, Jr., The Phoenix of Abortional Freedom, 17 N.Y.L.F. 335, 347 n.26 (1971) 

[9] Theophilus Gale, 2 The Court of the Gentiles 309 (1677) (pt. 4), cited in Oxford English Dictionary (1961).

 

[10] Mark S. Scott, Note, Quickening in the Common Law: The Legal Precedent Roe Attempted and Failed to Use, 1 Mich. L. & Pol'y Rev. page 199 (1996).

 

[11] Ibid. at page 199.

 

[12] http://www.vanderbilt.edu/SFL/quickening.htm cited in Mark S. Scott, Note, Quickening in the Common Law: The Legal Precedent Roe Attempted and Failed to Use, 1 Mich. L. & Pol'y Rev. page 199 (1996). (August 2003)

[13] Otherwise until and after Roe v. Wade (1973), 410 U.S. 113

[14] www.connerprairie.org/historyonline/whlh.html  (August 2003)

 

[17] James C. Mohr : Abortion in America: Origins and Evolution of National Policy,1800-1900,1978

 

 

[20]  "Quickening" itself referred to the sensation of foetal movement felt and reported by the pregnant woman.

 

[21]  www.connerprairie.org/historyonline/whlh. (August 2003)

 

[22] The leading American case was Commonwealth v. Bangs, 9 Mass. 369 (1812). 

 

[23] Rickie Solinger, The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law (New York: The Free Press, 1994), page 11-12.

 

[24] college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/ women/html/wm_000300_abortion.htm  (August 2003).

 

[25] James C. Mohr : Abortion in America: Origins and Evolution of National Policy,1800-1900,1978.

 

[26] Ronald Reagan, Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation (Thomas Nelson, 1984), pp. 88-89.



01.02.2004 17:51:29

Petr Gajdušek

 
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