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Abortion In English Law

Meanwhile, the uncertainty of canon lawyers allowed English law to give its own twist to the concept of animation. In the thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas had said that life is manifested principally in two kinds of actions: knowledge and movement. It could be taken to follow that animus, soul, or life, enters the body of the unborn infant when it first moves or stirs in the womb. This became the rule of English law. "Quickening" (literally, "coming to life") was held to occur not at a fixed time after conception, but at the moment when fetal movement is first detected—an event that varies with each pregnancy, but which usually happens near midterm, around the twentieth week.

It is not known exactly when this became the rule in England. The early twelfth-century text known as the Leges Henrici Primi took it for granted that animation occurs forty days after conception: abortion (which was treated only as an ecclesiastical offense) was said to be subject to three years' penance if it took place within those forty days, ten years' penance, as "quasi homicide," if it took place after animation (quickening). The identification of quickening with the first perception of fetal movement has been thought to date from the time of Henry de Bracton, a thirteenth-century judge and contemporary of Aquinas, who wrote the first systematic treatise on English law. But Bracton merely restated the canon law rule: "If one strikes a pregnant woman or gives her poison in order to procure an abortion, if the fetus is already formed or animated (quickened), especially if it is animated (quickened), he commits homicide." The usage by which a quickened fetus means one that has been felt moving in the womb could well be a much later development.

Although Bracton said that abortion of a quickened fetus was homicide, later writers insisted that it could not be homicide at common law. The proposition that abortion cannot be homicide is reiterated by practically every major writer on English criminal law, from William Staunford and William Lambard in the sixteenth century, through Edward Coke and Matthew Hale in the seventeenth century, to William Hawkins and William Blackstone in the eighteenth century. Homicide was agreed to require the prior birth of the victim. Murder might be charged, according to Hale, if the woman on whom an abortion was performed died as a result. Murder also might be charged, according to Coke, if a botched abortion injured a fetus that afterwards was born alive and then died from its prenatal injuries. But where a fetus, even a quickened fetus, was killed in the womb, resulting in stillbirth, whatever the crime, it would not be homicide at common law.

Killing the fetus might be a lesser crime. In England, abortion, both before and after quickening, was an ecclesiastical offense within the jurisdiction of the church courts. The extent to which it also could be prosecuted in the royal courts as a common law crime is a matter of controversy. Abortion after quickening, although not homicide, was said by Coke to be "a great misprison," by Blackstone to be "a very heinous misdemeanor." How far it actually was prosecuted is another question. As a practical matter, until the seventeenth century, the royal courts probably were content to leave the prosecution of abortion to church courts, which could compel, in ways the common law could not, testimony under oath about what had caused a miscarriage and whether a fetus had quickened.

The question of how far abortion constituted a common law crime became more important with the decline of ecclesiastical jurisdiction after the Reformation, especially after 1661 when the privilege against self-incrimination was extended to ecclesiastical tribunals. There are instances of prosecution for abortion in the royal courts during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These are scattered, however, and the exact contours of the offense have been disputed, as they were disputed at the time. Again, difficulties of proof imposed limits on what could be prosecuted. Without reliable tests for pregnancy, testimony about fetal movement might be required to prove that a woman really had been pregnant, or that the abortion had killed a live fetus. Proof of quickening became, then, a practical if not a legal prerequisite; and the need for such proof would make it hard to prosecute a woman who had procured her own abortion. This, in fact, was seldom done.

In 1803 Lord Ellenborough's Act (43 Geo. 3, c. 58), an early effort to consolidate offenses against the person, put abortion on a statutory basis for the first time in England. Attempt to induce the abortion of a quickened fetus through the use of poison was made a capital felony, while the attempt by any means to induce an abortion before (or without proof of) quickening was made a felony punishable by transportation to a penal colony. In 1828, attempted abortion with instruments after quickening was made a capital felony as well. The Offenses Against the Person Act, 1837, eliminated capital punishment, abrogated the distinction based on quickening, and subjected all abortion, at any stage of pregnancy, to the same penalty—transportation for life or three years' imprisonment. The Offenses Against the Person Act, 1861, s.58, changed the maximum punishment to life imprisonment and expressly inculpated the woman who procured or attempted her own abortion. This section is still on the books, although the Abortion Act, 1967, made an exception for cases in which the abortion is performed by a registered medical practitioner on any of the fairly liberal grounds for abortion permitted by that act.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawAbortion - Classical Attitudes And Canon Law, Abortion In English Law, Abortion In American Law: The Nineteenth Century