Virgins and Bastards 2/3

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Scullery Maid by Giuseppe Crespi

A lower class woman who found herself pregnant might lose her job and home, might lose her dowry if she had one, and might be cut off from her family and shunned. It would be nearly impossible to find work or support her child. During pregnancy, she might work at a Magdalene Laundry with other expectant girls, doing hard labor for no pay in exchange for meals and a bed. After giving birth, she’d be thrown out but the nuns would keep her baby.

If a high borne lady fell pregnant while unmarried, she risked everything. Virginity or maidenhood was a prerequisite to marriage, and pregnancy was proof she was no maiden. Such a lady might access an abortion, at risk to her life and future fertility. Probably more common (though it’s hard to estimate such secretive matters over time) was foreign travel. Going away for six months or a year with only a trusted relative or lady’s maid, to deliver the baby in secret. If they were Catholic they might hide the baby in a convent.

Throughout most of Europe’s history, abortion has been illegal and unsafe. Methods included physical measures and herbal remedies, and bleeding to death was not an uncommon result.  Because the providers were criminals, who sometimes needed to dispose of women’s bodies, they were not kind, gentle doctors. Increasing the price mid procedure was not unheard of.

In the United States and its former colonies, male primogeniture was much less important. The noble titles of European nations, like Earl and Count and Duke, were not carried over to the New World, certainly not after the American Revolutionary War. No bastard could threaten the royal line where there was no royal family. Abortion was neither illegal nor safely performed. By the 1800s, major newspapers carried coy ads for menstrual “regulators”, concoctions meant to induce miscarriage.

A meddlesome, devout United States Postal Inspector named Anthony Comstock took it as his personal mission to stamp out all vice. He objected, publicly and frequently, of tobacco, alcohol, gambling, profanity, pornography, atheism, and contraception. As head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, he persuaded the US Congress to pass the sweeping Comstock Act. This law banned the distribution of a wide range of ” obscene ” literature, including books on family planning. It remained in effect from 1873 to 1938 when the federal ban on contraception was lifted.

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