The Criminalization of Abortion in the West: Its Origins in Medieval Law

October 31, 2020
The Criminalization of Abortion in the West: Its Origins in Medieval Law

Anyone who wants to understand how abortion has been treatedhistorically in the Western legal tradition must first come toterms with two quite different but interrelated historicaltrajectories. On one hand, there is the ancient Judeo-Christiancondemnation of prenatal homicide as a wrong warrantingretribution; on the other, there is the juristic definition of"crime" in the modern sense of the word, which distinguished theterm sharply from "sin" and "tort" and was tied to the rise ofWestern jurisprudence. To find the act of abortion first identifiedas a crime in the West, one has to go back to the twelfth century,to the schools of ecclesiastical and Roman law in medievalEurope.In this book, Wolfgang P. Müller tells the story of how abortioncame to be criminalized in the West. As he shows, criminalizationas a distinct phenomenon and abortion as a self-standing criminalcategory developed in tandem with each other, first beingformulated coherently in the twelfth century at schools of law andtheology in Bologna and Paris. Over the ensuing centuries, medievalprosecutors struggled to widen the range of criminal casesinvolving women accused of ending their unwanted pregnancies. Inthe process, punishment for abortion went from the realm ofcarefully crafted rhetoric by ecclesiastical authorities toeventual implementation in practice by clerical and lay judgesacross Latin Christendom. Informed by legal history, moraltheology, literature, and the history of medicine, Müller’s book iswritten with the concerns of modern readers in mind, thus bridgingthe gap that might otherwise divide modern and medievalsensibilities.

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