The Way of Death: Abortion’s Path to Criminalization During the Middle Ages
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A lightning rod of controversy since the Middle Ages, abortion has both been condemned as the “way of death” and championed as a tool of female liberation (Elsakkers, “Reading Between the Lines” 468). Current debates over the legality of abortion rely on its religious characterization as an act of murder, a lingering stamp of ill fame from Europe’s medieval past. Remarkably, however, early medieval abortion laws were in some cases ambivalent toward early-term abortions (Elsakkers, “Abortion, Poisoning, Magic, and Contraception” 101). Frankish legal codes punished abortion as a poison, Frisian laws used a “hair and nails” criterion for abortion, and Old Germanic laws punished abortion more strongly for a male fetus. Intentional abortion went virtually unmentioned in Old Germanic law (Elsakkers, “Reading Between the Lines” 465). The Roman Catholic Church, by contrast, concentrated almost exclusively on intentional abortion. Church law vigorously denounced abortion as murder and warned women that they would be punished with “spiritual death,” excommunication, and hell if they obtained an abortion at any point in a pregnancy (Elsakkers, “Reading Between the Lines” 468). As the Middle Ages progressed, secular law began to echo these grim denunciations more and more frequently. The parallel development of the legal concept of criminalization and the religious concept of ensoulment at conception made possible the transfer of the Church’s condemnation of abortion into secular law.Biography:I am a freshman National Merit Scholar from Denver, Colorado, and I am double-majoring in Anthropology and Russian.
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