Margaret Brazier
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Reproductive bodies
Mothers, midwives and morals
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Chapter 8 places women centre stage illustrating how belief that women were weak and dangerous united medical practitioners and law makers. Medicine, in the sense of theories of the body and sickness, was deployed to make law and justify exclusion of women from public life. One group of women escaped exclusion and the often-forgotten story of ecclesiastical licensing of midwives in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is evaluated, highlighting the public duties of the midwife as a guardian of morals as well as the healer caring for birthing women. The sudden demise of ecclesiastical regulation and the take-over of childbirth by the ‘medical men’ is assessed. The imagery of women as both weak and dangerous is shown to buttress the many legal incapacities imposed on women by the common law. Similarly, bizarre theories about reproduction also influenced English law. The chapter demonstrates the high value placed on bloodlines and lineage, what would today be described as genetic identity. It explores the impact of ‘scientific’ (mis)understandings of reproduction in late medieval and early modern England on the development of the law and in particular male primogeniture. The close links between questions of property and reproduction will be analysed and entrenched antipathy to single motherhood examined. The historical themes of emphasis on genetic relatedness, wariness of certain kinds of parenthood and questions of access to regulation of reproduction will be shown to be instructive to modern debates on reproductive medicine and the law.

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