Using the “poisons of sterility”: Women and contraception during the Middle Ages

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present. Today’s post is contributed by Dr Gillian Kenny.

Medieval women not only often had the care of children on their minds, they also had the prevention of more children on their minds too. It is difficult to assess to what extent women and couples acted to control their families during the medieval period (for example by using coitus interruptus) but it seems clear from a myriad of sources that women in particular were aware of contraceptive methods and used them. Thomas of Chobham, writing in c. 1216, contended that women engaged in anti-conception acts when engaging in illicit sexual activity in order to avoid the outcome and that others did it to avoid the pain of childbirth.[1] It is important to note that during the medieval period the difference between contraception (preventing conception) and abortion (the termination of a pregnancy) was not clearly understood largely because the fetus was not really considered as such until ‘ensoulment’ had taken place (known as the ‘quickening’ or when the woman first felt it move).

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‘It was quite shocking’: The Day the Government Leader Voted Against his Government’s Legislation on Contraception

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. The latest blog post is contributed by Ciara Meehan and explores the ill-fated attempt to legalise the sale of contraception in Ireland in the early 1970s.

Portrait of Liam Cosgrave, on display at Leinster House.

Portrait of Liam Cosgrave, on display at Leinster House.

In 1974 Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Liam Cosgrave took the most unusual decision to vote against his own government. His Minister for Justice, Patrick Cooney, had introduced legislation designed to amend the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1935, under which the importation, display or sale of contraceptives was illegal in Ireland. Cosgrave, however, was a devout Catholic, and Pope Paul VI had re-affirmed the Church’s opposition to artificial contraception when he issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae in July 1968. Cosgrave did not pre-warn any members of his Fine Gael party, nor did he alert his coalition partners in Labour. As the whip had been removed and a free vote allowed, he was not obliged to inform his colleagues. But he was not just an ordinary TD (MP); as the leader of the government, there were certain expectations. As John Bruton (Taoiseach, 1994-97) — normally a supporter of Cosgrave — put it, ‘it was quite shocking … It just wasn’t good leadership’.[1]

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How ‘Orals’ Altered the Contraceptive Marketplace in 1960s Britain

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post is contributed by Jessica Borge, who has curated an AHRC- funded image gallery of 1960s oral contraceptive advertising. The gallery is available to view here.

Journal Ad [Detail], Practitioner, January 1962. Searle / 'Conovid'. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

Journal Ad [Detail], Practitioner, January 1962. Searle / ‘Conovid’. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

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Interning at The Museum of Motherhood

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post looks at the Museum of Motherhood in the United States and is brought to us by Naomi Redina, one of the museum’s interns.

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The Museum of Motherhood (MOM) is a center devoted to sharing the art, science, and history related to the study of mothers, fathers, and families. With a mission to “start great conversations, feature thought-provoking exhibits, and share global perspectives about procreation, birth, and caregiving,” the Museum of Motherhood illuminates the experiences of birth and raising families.

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Abortion in Medieval Ireland

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post is contributed by Gillian Kenny, a Research Associate at the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

Abortion (or the lack of it) is back in the news in Ireland again following reports that a woman who claimed to be suicidal was denied an abortion and instead gave birth by caesarean at 25 weeks. The roots of lay and clerical anti-abortionism in Ireland would appear to be a modern phenomenon as medieval sources indicate a country in which abortion could be seen as a less severe offence by clerics, for example, than bearing an unwanted child or committing ‘fornication’.[1] In the middle ages women commonly underwent abortions in Ireland and the fact that they did so is reflected in numerous sources. Enshrined in the medieval Irish legal code is that fact that a wife could be divorced if she had procured an abortion for herself. This prohibition is part of a long list of grounds for divorce which included infanticide, flagrant infidelity, infertility, and bad management.[2] Thus the circumstances in which a man could divorce his wife were obviously quite severe but even still the wife was allowed to receive her marriage-portion back (even after an abortion).

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A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-1987 (2013)

Click to view on Amazon

Click to view on Amazon

Published November 2013. Includes coverage of unmarried mothers, the contraception debate of the 1970s and the abortion debate of the 1980s.

Fine Gael’s demise has been periodically predicted since 1933.  Yet it has survived, becoming the largest party in the state after the 2011 general election.  Drawing on interviews with key players and previously unused archival sources, this book offers a fascinating account of a critical period in Fine Gael’s history when the party was challenged to define its place in Irish politics.  The central role played by Declan Costello is disclosed for the first time.  Although he was never party leader, his Just Society proposals transformed Fine Gael by encouraging a new generation of socially-minded politicians, while his agenda for change paved the way for Garret FitzGerald.  Exploring the continuities and discontinuities between Costello’s Just Society and FitzGerald’s Constitutional Crusade, the book documents how the internal debate shaped the party and provides an insight into the origins of an identity crisis with which Fine Gael continues to struggle.

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