NL 2014/11

Concealing a Pregnancy Indicates Intent to Commit Infanticide

Concealing a Pregnancy Indicates Intent to Commit Infanticide

Before pregnancy tests were widely and easily available, rather than solely from a doctor or chemist, a great deal of discussion focussed on the possible dangers of such liberality. Who knows what a woman might decide if she were the only one aware of her pregnancy, and at an early stage at that? In other words, women should be kept in the dark concerning their condition for as long as possible due to the danger of egoistic and criminal ideas. One need not be a feminist to feel enraged at such patriarchal arrogation.

But as soon she became aware of her pregnancy, keeping it a secret was a crime. In the view of (male) authorities, there was a single reason why a pregnant woman would keep mum about her pregnancy: if she were planning to have an abortion or kill the child. This would also mean cheating the state and church out of a little human they were entitled to.

If the woman wasn’t married or her husband was absent for an extended period of time, not making a pregnancy known was considered a punishable crime for a second reason: it proved the woman’s immorality.

Examples showing how such thinking still exists are easy to find. Selecting a specific country and time period remains a matter of personal taste. In any case, maintaining the necessary academic objectivity and accepting a source as simply a product of its context is difficult.


A look back into the 18th century

Today’s example was taken from Lübeck’s municipal archives and is dated 1793. The Northern German legal scholar Johann Carl Henrich Dreyer (1723-1802) submitted a proposal to the city council: “a law or warning of punishment concerning the concealment or denial of a pregnancy and giving birth in secret”. Such a law was necessary, in Dreyer’s opinion, because “so many, nearly countless acts have, unfortunately, confirmed the unhappy experience that in the case of debauched girls, dissembling and denying a pregnancy is the first reason, the first step and preparation for infanticide, after which the concealment of a helpless newborn, hiding the birth, and, in a word, the actual murder of a child, or the deliberate neglect of one, must soon follow, in one way or another”.

Dreyer then lists a few laws that other sovereigns used in attempts to prevent or punish such crimes. While a “woman who as a result of disgrace became pregnant” could not be sentenced to death, because not even torture would produce an admission of premeditated infanticide, in the Duchy of Holstein, then part of the Kingdom of Denmark, she was “sentenced to life imprisonment”. And in accordance with the close alliance between church and state, this law was read from the pulpit each year.

Punishing the offender required everybody’s help. For example, the “employer, as soon as he has good reason to be convinced and it is apparent that his maid is close to giving birth, must question her about the matter discreetly and in case of denial, must report to the authorities the reasons for suspicion”.


Ignorance is not a mitigating factor

It didn’t help matters if the woman was unaware of her pregnancy or was ill: according to the 1792 civil code of Prussia: “A maiden who delays informing her elders, guardians, employers, midwives or the authorities more than fourteen days after she becomes aware of her condition will be guilty of punishable concealment of a pregnancy and will be held responsible for the resulting consequences.”

Article 934: “As soon as the fruit of womb reaches the age of 30 weeks, the objection that the maiden was unaware of the pregnancy or that the time frame has not expired will not be acceptable.” In the event that a women kept her pregnancy secret and gave birth to a immature baby (one that wasn’t able to survive outside the womb) it was assumed that she had had an abortion and for that would be charged.

In the civil codes of Southern Germany, a “single woman who concealed her pregnancy” and bore a dead child was considered guilty of infanticide. A claim that the child was stillborn or died immediately after delivery wasn’t taken into account and she was “beheaded”.

On the basis of these and other laws, Johann Carl Henrich Dreyer developed a proposal for Holstein that was equally cruel. The Lübeck city council should consider “ordering landlords and landladies ... to report to the authorities [single] women renting from or otherwise lodging with them each month”. Since there were opportunities for “licentiousness, dissolute conduct and pregnancy”, the authorities should “determine the reason for their entering into service, where they received financial support, etc.”


We would like to thank Patrick Fiska of the Institute of Austrian Historical Research at the University of Vienna for a transcription of this difficult document, in which both old German and Latin script were employed interchangeably and which contains a number of Latin and French terms and passages.

Source (in German):


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