“’The alleged fetus’: law, neighborhood, and women’s reproductive health in Old Regime France"
This paper focuses on an incident in Lyon in 1728 involving a young single woman named Marguerite Rebourdin. She threw what she described as a “lump of flesh” out of the second- floor window of the room where she lived. In subsequent events her “lump of flesh” was described variously as a fetus, an alleged fetus, and a baby as the human tissue moved through many hands from her room to the street below to a neighbor’s home to the building where she lived and to the city courthouse.
Legal records of the discoveries of fetal and neonatal remains, like Rebourdin’s, feature in many early modern French archives. Looking at the relationship between law and women's sexual and reproductive histories through the lens of the disposal of fetal remains provides an opportunity to re-examine the relationship between legal process and women's sexuality. They reveal the wide range of efforts to interrupt reproduction at various stages that were not prosecuted and the wide tolerance for those efforts. The fabulous work of criminal prosecutions for infanticide in recent decades has illuminated one particular relationship between law and women's reproductive health. Yet the stories of fetal remains that moved around cities through many hands suggest a far more common set of practices around interrupting reproduction in which many actors, including legal officials. were broadly complicit and acquiescent, and illuminates the ordinary reproductive health stories of young women.
Julie Hardwick, John E. Green Regents Professor of History, UT-Austin Distinguished Teaching Professor, UT Systems Regents Distinguished Teaching Professor