Julia Epstein


Competing historical and cultural understandings of the human body make clear that medicine and the law construe bodily truths from differing knowledge bases. Jurists rely virtually entirely on medical testimony to analyze biological data, and medical professionals are not usually conversant with the legal ramifications of their diagnoses. In early modern Europe, both physicians and jurists recognized that their respective professions were governed by different epistemological standards, a view articulated by F6lix Vicq d'Azyr (1748-1794), anatomist and secretary to the Royal Society of Medicine in France from 1776. Vicq d'Azyr noted that while lawyers were required to make unyielding decisions based on conflicting laws, customs, and decrees, physicians were permitted more latitude for uncertainty. In the late twentieth century, Western medicine and law have become inextricably entwined as technologies have produced new ethical dilemmas facing medicolegal jurisprudence.

The authority of women to voice and explain their experiences of pregnancy and childbirth before and during the eighteenth century contrasts powerfully with the twentieth century's reliance on medicolegal decisions to define these experiences. In early modern Europe, women controlled information, experience, and beliefs concerning reproduction, and women held authority over it. A woman only became officially and publicly pregnant when she felt her fetus quicken, or move inside her, and she alone could ascertain and report the occurrence of quickening. In 1765, William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England stated that life "begins in the contemplation of law as soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother's womb" (emphasis added).