Is the Catholic Church Harsher on Abortion Now than in Medieval Times?

When discussing divisive subjects such as abortion, it is common for people to reference ‘historical reasons’ to justify their appalling politics. There are two problems with this kind of argument. Firstly, this ‘history’ is often an oversimplified version of the past, in which facts are not only bent to serve a political agenda but completely rewritten. The second problem with this kind of reasoning is that it implies a false linguistic stability. People may have performed and written about ‘abortion’ for millennia, but what they meant by that was not always the same thing. (The same could be said about today: people spreading misinformation thrive on making false equivalencies.)

The possibility of the United States Supreme Court reversing their stand on abortion, based on the case between Jane Roe and Henry Wade (Roe v. Wade) made me think about abortion in the past. According to this ruling, abortion is legal if performed before the foetus is viable (meaning able to survive outside the womb). This is strikingly similar to the way medieval Canon Law distinguished between infanticide and abortion.

But let’s go back a little bit more in time. In GrecoRoman antiquity, the patriarch (paterfamilias) presided over his family, including on matters such as infanticide and abortion. While it was not most pregnant people who decided about it, abortion was legal and not uncommon. But that was about to change, with the rise of Christianity.

St Augustine (354-420) was one of the first people to write about this subject. He was the bishop of Hippo, currently in Algeria, and is considered one of the Fathers of the (Latin) Church. Augustine was deeply influenced by Aristotle, believing for instance that the male seed (sperm) contained procreative power. But Augustine added Christian reasons to justify Aristotelian thought: since Adam (not Eve) was the first human being, it was natural to focus on the male seed. (Let’s pretend there was no misogyny behind these theories…) The main change, however, was the growing importance of the soul and the idea that humans were made in God’s image, which made things murkier where abortion was concerned. However, even when the Catholic Church started to gradually introduce stricter punishment for abortion, people were rarely prosecuted.

In the 13th century, St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) wrote about the gradual development of the foetus, and this formed the basis for the Church’s view on abortion for the next six centuries. He picked up where Augustine left of, integrating Aristotle’s views with Christian theology. For Aquinas, the semen contained the potential child as well as the soul. Women were merely vessels for the male generative power, providing shelter and nourishment for the foetus (in the form of menstruation). Combining Augustine’s writings with Aristotle’s, Aquinas believed the female body to be inferior to the male.

So, after conception, the foetus developed in three stages: firstly, as matter indistinguishable from the mother’s menstruation, this embryo was alive, but only had a vegetative soul; after that, limbs would start to develop, and it would acquire an animal soul; finally, the foetus would attain full human form, and would acquire a human (and rational) soul. This derived from Aristotle’s biology, in which there was a correspondence between the form of the body and its contents. For Aquinas, the human soul was inherent in the male sperm, but was ‘activated’ in the foetus by God once the foetus reached human form: this was called ensoulment. According to this view, there were two phases a foetus underwent in the womb: pre- and post-ensoulment, which meant when the foetus acquired human status. God’s infusing the soul into the human (‘infusion’) was the defining moment in pregnancy.

But how would people (even the pregnant ones) know that this had taken place? Traditionally, foetal movement (or ‘quickening’) was interpreted as a sign of free will, as the foetus voluntarily moved, showing its humanity (and indicating its soul). Quickening became the main marker of humanity, and a pragmatic theological and legal way of telling when abortion was murder and – significantly – when it wasn’t. Today, we are told to expect foetal movement for the first time anytime between 16 and 24 weeks. For Aristotle, it took a male foetus 40 days, and a female one, 90 days, to move (this derived from Hippocratic texts). Medieval legal documents mention 4-5 months as the time of ensoulment (also called ‘animation’ or ‘vivification’). However, ultimately, the only one who would know for sure was the one who was pregnant, as it was difficult to ascertain the time of conception precisely.

Just like today, the first months of pregnancy could be a very private time. It would be possible for someone to get pregnant and provoke an abortion before anyone knew they were expecting a child. Arguably, this person (and the ones around them) wouldn’t even think of this as an abortion. We must be careful with language.

Hollywood movies tend to depict medieval abortions using the same surgical instruments they would for an amputation: this could not be further from the truth. Medieval people took herbal remedies for most ailments, including delayed menstruation. Amenorrhea (the absence of menstruation) was seen as a serious medical concern, as the female body needed purgation to balance its humours. So, if someone’s period was late, they might drink something to help it come: which may well have resulted in an abortion – intended or not.

So, abortions before ensoulment were not murder, creating a window of several months from the first suspicions of pregnancy up to quickening, for people to use remedies to provoke uterine contractions and purgation, terminating the pregnancy. Plus, there was a legitimate reason for doing so, as regular menstruation was a sign of female health among those of fertile age. This complicates the definition of abortion. (It is telling that in most sources ‘miscarriages’ and ‘abortions’ are used as synonyms: these are not fixed categories.)

Inducing an abortion was still a moral sin, but Canon Law recommended relatively light punishments for pre-quickening abortions (around 3 years’ imprisonment, or a fine). For comparison, it was much harsher on adultery (around 7 years). But even then, as historians know, what the law predicts is not the same as what happened in practice. Abortions before quickening were rarely prosecuted and, if they were, sentences were almost never carried out.   

What about abortions after ensoulment? Well, these people would be considered murderers. Still, when trying such a case, it was not uncommon for the person’s condition to be considered: was this a poor woman, who would not be able to support this child? Leniency was not unheard of. This compassion might strike us today, when many of those who identify as ‘pro-life’ don’t seem too concerned with the kind of life these children forced to be born will have, nor about their families.

After the Reformation, Catholic abortion laws became more severe, especially under Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590). The Pope was trying to purge the Church of immorality in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. So, those who sought or provided abortions could be sentenced to the death penalty (the same could be said about clergy members who did not honour their vote of chastity). But even then, this had little consequences in practice, even for those living within the Papal States. The following Pope, Gregory XIV (1590-1591), quickly revoked this law.

Current Catholic teaching follows the Revision of Canon Law (1917). Having lost most of its political power, the Church subscribed to the theory of ‘immediate ensoulment’, in which the foetus’ soul enters the body at conception. This policing of people’s sexuality was part of the first comprehensive revision since medieval times. It made the distinction about ensoulment irrelevant and predicted excommunication for the one who had an abortion as well as their helpers. This was ratified in 1983. It is possible that the Catholic Church’s harsher position on abortion in the 20th century was a response to the growing availability of contraception (and especially the pill), which the Church still does not accept. While this position has little legal effect, the impact on a personal and familial level for devout Christians is surely considerable. How despairing that 13th-century people had more reproductive freedom than many of us today!

So, when politicians or policymakers argue that *historically* abortion has almost always been illegal and that Roe v. Wade is a modern precedent, there are two problems with this statement. The first of them is that no, abortions were not always and everywhere illegal. Depending on the time and the place, they were legal for longer than they were illegal. Furthermore, this implies that all abortions, in the present and the past, are the same. They are not. As I have shown, legal and theological debates notwithstanding, in medieval Europe it was the pregnant person who ultimately had the authority over their body, especially in the earlier stages of pregnancy. Pregnancy wasn’t assumed until someone declared themselves to be pregnant, or when it was so advanced that it was obvious. But until then, there was a long window when action could be taken. It is heart-breaking that it is possible that this right is completely robbed from us, along with bodily autonomy and reproductive justice.


Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles. (Turnhout: 2010).

Aristotle, History of Animals: In Ten Books (London: 1862).

Augustine, The Confessions (Project Gutenberg: 2013).

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Female Genital Mutilation and ‘The West’: Past and Present


Violence against Women and Girls

According to the United Nations (UNFPA-UNICEF), there are 4.2 million girls around the world at risk of being subjected to female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in 2022. FGM consists of cutting or removing the external female genitals, and it is often performed without anaesthesia by untrained people, resulting in life-long physical and emotional problems for the person who undergoes it. FGM is a human rights violation and ending it is a deeply feminist fight.

FGM can vary (there are four kinds of FGM), and is performed today in more than thirty countries (and that’s not including the United States or Europe). Still, whenever I read news about FGM, I am struck by how little its history is discussed, or how it is similar to many other bodily interventions, from medieval to Victorian times. This is a millenary practice, stretching from ancient Egypt to the present, and spreading through many parts of the globe. Yet the term ‘female genital mutilation’ is itself a Western concept; many people from performing cultures prefer the term ‘female circumcision’.

It is telling that it is the Western nomenclature that is most often used in the discourse about FGM: the term ‘mutilation’ conjures up violence and even barbarism, something we do not want to associate with ourselves. There’s an inherent ‘otherness’ when FGM is discussed in developed countries, as though it were a practice relegated to the ‘global South’, stuck in misogynistic traditions and unable to fully embrace modernity. The way that the media portray FGM often makes us associate it with people fundamentally different from us, living in far away places. Yet that could not be farther from the truth. As always, things are a little bit more complicated than that.

Bodies that do not conform to socio-cultural expectations (be they religious, sexual, or medical) have long been subject to interventions. Unruly bodies could be ‘corrected’ by surgery, for instance, or ‘purified’ through religious ceremonies. I wrote recently about how non-binary bodies could be threatening to how medieval and early modern people understood the world. It was not uncommon for these intersex bodies to be ‘corrected’ through surgery. The same could be said for female bodies with ‘excessively large’ genitalia, which should also be ‘corrected’ surgically.

The Persian physician Ibn Sina (980-1037), also known as Avicenna, recommended surgical removal of genitalia that did not clearly fit into sexual binaries, such as ‘hermaphrodites’. The Andalusian physician Al-Zahrawi (d. 1013), also known as Albucasis, similarly wrote of the removal of ‘superfluous flesh’, such as enlarged clitorises, through clitoridectomy (the removal of the clitoris). In these medical manuals, surgical interventions on intersex bodies were described next to texts on circumcision, both male and female. These surgeries could ‘purify’ bodies, but they also served to reinforce societal norms about gender roles, marriage, and reproduction. Female sexuality could be regulated, and the physical differences between the sexes were reinforced by surgeons’ interventions.

Two centuries later, when these texts were translated into Latin, they started to be studied by Western physicians. By the 14th century, European surgeons cited Ibn Sina and Al-Zahrawi in their own writings, repeating their teachings about how non-conforming bodies should be ‘corrected’ through surgery. For the influential French surgeon Guy de Chauliac (1300-1368), and many of his contemporaries, ‘unnatural’ bodies should be made to conform to what nature intended through surgery. Of course, it is impossible not to see the contradiction in this idea.

De Chauliac was writing in a period in which surgery was undergoing a profound transformation, becoming more learned. Surgeons were increasingly competing with university-trained physicians in the medical marketplace. By suggesting surgical interventions, surgeons like de Chauliac were legitimising their own authority and knowledge, often through the management of female bodies. Therefore, even if they were not perceived as ‘hermaphrodites’, women whose large clitorises could become erect should have them amputated, according to de Chauliac. They were ‘too masculine’ and a threat to the social order and Christian moral. It is crucial to keep in mind that, in medieval times, women were thought to be the most lustful of the sexes, which further justified the subjugation of their bodies in a patriarchal society.

These ‘corrective’ surgeries were never commonplace in medieval times, whether in the Middle East or in Western Europe. They may have been occasionally performed, but their main importance lies in how often they were discussed by medical practitioners. Similarly, clitoridectomy was recommended (and indeed practised for a short period) during Victorian times by the surgeon Isaac Baker Brown (1812-1873). He advised the removal of the clitoris for ‘excessive’ masturbation and many other ‘disorders’, including hysteria. After debates about the ethics and medical efficacy of this operation, Baker Brown was disgraced, and his practice closed.

However, clitoridectomies were still performed in the United States to ‘treat’ masturbating girls and women in the same period – and they continued until the 1960s. It was also recommended to ‘help’ women orgasm during penetrative sex. These surgeries were considered valid medical practices yet are rarely discussed today.

It might seem counter-intuitive to compare FGM to surgical interventions in different social, geographical, and temporal contexts. But the clitoris and its symbolic role as the site of female sexuality are central in the examples cited here. Whether performed by specialised medical practitioners or by laypeople, all these ‘corrections’ and ‘treatments’ on female bodies derived from their specific cultural contexts. Medieval ‘hermaphrodites’ might display enlarged clitorises that could threaten binaries and gender roles, while 19th-century perceptions of masturbation as pathological could mean it had to be prevented. Controlling (and dominating) the female body and women’s sexuality is the thread connecting these seemingly disparate activities.

FGM as we know it today has a long history and encompasses many different practices that vary from a geographic, ethnic, and cultural perspective. Furthermore, it was not always the same throughout the centuries in which it was (and is) performed. My goal here is not to generalise, but to continue to learn more about FGM today and how we can help in the fight to eradicate it and protect women and girls. However, we should be careful not to distance ourselves too sharply from performing communities. Medical practitioners have performed forms of FGM, especially clitoridectomy, in Europe and in the United States, until not too long ago. It is not a ‘non-Western’ practice. It’s not someone else’s problem. FGM is a human rights issue that concerns all of us, especially feminists.

* This text was written in collaboration with the wonderful people from The Vavengers. You can support this incredible charity here.


Albucasis, Cyrurgia Albucasis cum cauterijs et alijs instrumentis (Venice, 1500).

Avicenna, Liber Canonis Avicenne (Venice, 1507).

Isaac Baker Brown, On Surgical Diseases of Women (London, 1861).

Guy de Chauliac, Chirurgia Magna (Avignon, 1363).

Further Reading:

Leah DeVun, The Shape of Sex (New York, 2021).

Sarah Rodriguez, Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy in the United States (New York, 2018).

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Key Concepts

What is Gender History?

In the 1920s, Virginia Woolf famously described how the history of women was unknown: ‘It has been common knowledge for ages that women exist, bear children, have no beards, and seldom go bald, but save in these respects […] we know little of them and have little evidence upon which to base our conclusions.’ Woolf was writing shortly after women were granted the vote in the UK (1918), after an arduous campaign by the suffragettes. This first feminist wave, associated with the political women’s suffrage movement, did not prompt historians to investigate women’s history (with a few exceptions).

In the 1960s, however, a combination of feminism’s ‘second wave’ (characterised by the women’s liberation movement) and internal changes in the discipline (which I describe in more detail here) meant that women were gradually considered a worthy subject of historical study. Feminist scholars fought to establish women’s studies courses in universities in Europe and the USA in the 1970s. Feminist activists moved from the question of whether it was possible to write a history of women to the assertion that any history that did not include them was necessarily an incomplete one. Fuelled by both intellectual and political goals, these feminist researchers started to write history in new ways – which often contradicted the way history had traditionally been written.

This questioning of how we conceptualise history was inevitable, as feminist scholars did not want ‘women’s history’ to simply be an additional field of study. Instead, this field would profoundly change how we think of historical narratives in general. To integrate new voices and perspectives, historians’ analytical structures and tools themselves had to be rethought. History was already going through many internal changes as a discipline (as I explain in What is Cultural History?). Heavily influenced by anthropology, historians considered new objects of study, such as lower classes, often excluded from the historical narrative. Women were a great example of the ones left behind in the study of history.

By thinking of womanhood and the role women played in the past, historians questioned categories, influenced by earlier philosophy, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s work. If ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ (or a man, for that matter), then we must study how we construct our sexual and gender categories. In other words, as feminist scholars started to deconstruct femininity and its history, it was unavoidable that the same would be done to masculinity.

Furthermore, with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and especially with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the fight for gay rights gained momentum and became part of the mainstream. Queer studies progressively gained space in universities, combining academic and political goals, as women’s studies had earlier. At the same time, feminist historians who had established these ‘women’s studies’ courses in academia gradually realised that their aims to change the way we conceptualise history had not been fully realised. ‘Women’s history’ was still a sub-field of history, apart from the more traditional, male-dominated ways of writing history.

However, the move from ‘women’s history’ to a broader ‘gender history’, though it might have seemed natural to some, did not happen without resistance. Some feminists feared that turning to how we conceptualise gender, in general, might mean the abandonment of the political project of ‘women’s history’ and the dismantlement of what they had built.

(There is an interesting parallel with how feminists are divided today where trans rights are concerned. Some feminists believe we should fully embrace trans liberation and include all LGBT+ minorities in the feminist project. In contrast, others fear the ‘erasure’ of women and the loss of rights feminists have fought so hard to gain. I believe that feminism and true equality should benefit all of us: that is why inclusive and intersectional feminism seems to me the only way forward.)

In any case, ‘gender history’ had been an inherent part of ‘women’s history’ from its beginnings: it provided context to women’s experiences in the past and situated feminism along with other contemporary fights for human rights (based on race and sexual orientation, for instance). The 1980s shift from ‘women’s’ to ‘gender’ history had many effects on how we think of history: by deconstructing the category of ‘woman’, scholars opened the debate to include many other aspects of the human experience and identity. They showed how most of the categories we tend to believe of as eternal and atemporal are historically constructed.

Finally, this shift towards inclusiveness gave the study of gender more impact in academia. By leaving the ‘intellectual ghetto’ of women’s studies, historians of gender were able to influence historical narratives more deeply. Historians of any subject would have to consider the gendered construction of their objects of study – whether they were military, political, or artistic. As cultural history gained popularity, historians also started to confront the tensions between social reality and representation in the past. The idea of socially constructed categories exemplified by sex/gender became a prime example of how to balance this tension. So, as cultural history gained prominence, it did so arguably using many of the theoretical and methodological frameworks created and developed by feminist scholars. The same could be said about poststructuralism.

In a way, then, we could argue that feminist historians’ political and intellectual goals were reached as the field itself became broader to other perspectives. Outside of academia, there are also many feminisms today. But maybe we can learn something from the internal changes history underwent in the last decades. An inclusive kind of feminism might be able to impact our society deeper than a narrower one. Plus, it is a more empathetic way of understanding the human experience.

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Not ‘fit for child-bearing’: Fatness and (In)fertility



According to the UK’s National Health System, ‘Being overweight or obese’ is considered a risk factor for infertility. Pregnant people who are fat are often told about higher risks of complications during pregnancy and may have their birth choices limited due to their size. The fat acceptance movement have shown how fraught the relationship between health systems and fat, pregnant bodies can be, and how pervasive and harmful fat shaming is. Unfortunately, it is also an issue that overweight people have dealt with for millennia.

This negative stereotyping has its roots in Hippocrates (c. 460 BCE- c. 370 BCE), usually considered the ‘father of Western medicine’. For Hippocrates, slender women had more chances of conceiving than fat ones, as ‘to be very fleshy is evil’. Other ancient sources, such as Aristotle and Galen, understood fat bodies to be inherently less fertile than slim ones and were quoted, along with Hippocrates, until the 18th century.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, midwifery manuals, medical books and recipe collections aimed at a broad readership were published in vernacular languages, hoping to instruct readers on reproduction matters. In a best-selling book of the period, The Secrets of Don Alessio Piemontese, readers found entries such as ‘For women who cannot conceive due to fatness’, printed alongside ways to facilitate childbirth for bigger bodies. This advice was often about how fat women should ‘give birth on all fours, like beasts’. While we know much about how different birth positions can be helpful today, what is striking about this entry is the likening of fat women to animals.

However, early modern authors such as Alessio Piemontese did not simply repeat earlier prejudices about bigger bodies inherited from the Greek and Roman medical tradition. Fat bodies were seen as inherently disruptive, and therefore problematic, resisting gender expectations. Moreover, fatness could be seen as ‘unchristian’, as it testified to a lack of restraint and indulgence in the sin of gluttony. In popular print, fat bodies were linked to many reproduction problems. Overweight men were associated with impotence, lower sexual drive and were thought to produce seed (semen) of lower quality. Fat women were considered more likely to miscarry and to have difficult births. Because fat was supposed to be made of congealed blood, it could also disrupt a woman’s regular menstrual cycle, considered a pre-condition to conception.

In Nicholas Culpeper’s A Directory for Midwives, readers were told that fat women’s menstrual blood became fat, so their menstruation might cease, preventing conception. If conception did happen, there would likely not be enough blood to feed the growing foetus, as menstrual blood was thought to nourish the foetus in the womb throughout pregnancy. (That is why pregnant women would not normally menstruate.)Fat bodies were therefore thought to selfishly use up resources, which would then be lacking to generate a baby. According to Jane Sharp, in her Midwives Book, fat women were simply not ‘fit for child-bearing’.

Fat bodies were seen as less suited to reproduction in general. Early modern understandings of the body linked desire (and desirability) to fertility, which meant that bodies considered less aesthetically pleasing were necessarily less able to fulfil their social roles. Paradoxically, Renaissance aesthetics usually considered plumpness attractive if it was not excessive. As always, perceptions of fatness and beauty were subjective. Plump women were generally thought to be healthy and fertile, while those who were too ‘gross’ (fat) were believed to be less so. When reproduction was the primary goal of matrimony, and motherhood, the main role women were expected to play, fat bodies were not only considered less virtuous, lacking in Christian moderation, but incompetent in fulfilling their primary social role for the stability of the community.

Of course, the preoccupation with generating offspring and securing the continuation of bloodlines was particularly significant for higher classes. These were also the ones more likely to be fat in the first place, leading less demanding lifestyles and being able to afford richer food (and more quantity of it). While class played an essential part in how fat bodies were seen, fatness was associated with moral corruption and reproductive issues in most social circles. In medical books, readers were advised about losing weight to facilitate conception, even though it was often assumed that fat people would be too indolent to follow them. If a lifestyle change did not help, changing sexual positions for intercourse might be useful – as it was thought that fatness prevented the penis from going deep enough into the vagina for the semen to reach its destination. Women could therefore be penetrated from behind, rather than the religiously approved face to face position with the man on top.

The pathologising of fat bodies is not a contemporary phenomenon. Negative attitudes towards fat bodies (especially feminine bodies) were primarily based on a perception that these disruptive bodies would not fulfil their expected gender roles. Female fat bodies were not maternal, selfishly eating up resources that should be used for a child and preventing the woman from fulfilling her primary social role. Significantly, this was thought to be self-induced, with fat people being blamed for their failure to reproduce. So, being a fat woman could be seen as subversive, rejecting the role society and religion had assigned to women. Today, fat bodies may be pathologised for different reasons. But they are still seen as inherently less healthy than ‘regular’ bodies – at least outside of fat activism circles. Maybe it is time to finally retire old associations of fatness with moral and social failings and embrace human diversity in all its forms.


Jacques Jouanna, Hippocrates (London: 1999).

Alessio Piemontese, I Secreti del reverendo Donno Alessio Piemontese (Venice: 1557).

Nicholas Culpeper, A Directory for Midwives (London: 1651).

Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book (London: 1671).

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‘…but the Art of Midwifry chiefly concern us’!

In her 1671 midwifery manual, the English midwife Jane Sharp defined the art of midwifery as ‘doubtless one of the most useful and necessary of all Arts, for the being and well-being of Mankind’. A midwife should combine theoretical and practical knowledge, even if the former was harder to obtain in a world where women could not attend universities and their anatomy lectures.

However, ‘farther knowledge may be gain’d by a long and diligent practice, and be communicated to others of our own sex’. According to Jane Sharp, experience defined a midwife as skilled; the lack of theoretical knowledge could be remedied by books such as her own.

Seventeenth-century midwives were privy to the all-female world of childbirth and ‘secrets of women’. Yet they also had an essential social role in religious rituals, such as ‘churching’ – when a woman was welcomed back into church life after her lying-in period postpartum. They were often called as expert witnesses in trials as well, especially those in which sexual matters were at stake. Midwifery was also one of the few professions open to women who wanted to earn a living and be independent.

While not much is known about Jane Sharp, her faith in midwives (her ‘Sisters’, as she calls them in the dedicatory epistle) is strikingly different from how most other contemporary midwifery manuals depicted midwives. To her, midwives were smart, hard-working people who did their best to keep women and babies safe during the hazards of childbirth. They would also care for the mother and child before and after the delivery. Midwives were undoubtedly essential members of society.

Seeing the photos of the March with Midwives held in many cities throughout the UK on 21 November, it is baffling to think that midwives and birth activists still must fight for midwives to be treated with the respect they deserve. After all, the art of midwifery chiefly concerns us, as Jane Sharp wrote.

@midwivesmarch #MarchWithMidwives

Reference: Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book. Or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered (London: Simon Miller, 1671).

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