Tuesday, January 29, 2008

 

Of Child Abuse, Animal Rights, & Birth Control

Last night, a couple of questionable things were said at a seminar I attend. First, it was said that the first court case of child abuse in the US was brought on the grounds that children are animals (see here and here for online examples). This isn't exactly true. The case in question is known as the case of Mary Ellen. The American Humane Association has a web page which corrects some of the myths around her life. The case is discussed also in The Child Welfare Challenge: Policy, Practice, and Research by Peter J. Pecora:
The case was brought to the court under the premise that the child was covered by laws protecting all "animals." That premise was recently debunked as an historical myth (Watkins, 1990). That the Little Mary Ellen case was the first child protective service (CPS) court intervention on behalf of a child is also not correct. Although the girl's case was finally addressed by a court of law in 1875, reported criminal cases involving child abuse date back to 1655 (Bremner, 1970, 123- 124, as cited in Watkins, 1990, p. 500).
It was also said last night that, until recently, fertile women generally had a child about every year. I think it is illuminating to consider that women in many, if not all, societies had developed herbal and other methods to control their own fertility and this was strongly resisted in patriarchal societies.

Some scholars have advanced a compelling argument that the Medieval European witch hunts were motivated, in part, by the desire suppress female control of female fertility (see esp. "The Elimination of Medieval Birth Control and the Witch Trials of Modern Times" by Gunnar Heinsohn and Otto Steiger in the International Journal of Women's Studies, 3, May 1982, 193-214 and "Population, Conquest and Terror in the 21st Century" by Gunnar Heinsohn). Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English have written "Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers", which also sheds light on the patriarchal suppression of women healers in Medieval times.

There's another more recent (2004) paper by Gunnar Heinsohn and Otto Steiger on witch hunts and birth control here (PDF). Here's an excerpt from the abstract:
The time of early Renaissance Europe, with the extreme losses of labor in the wake of the Little Ice Age and the Great Plague, brings about the Great Witch Hunt. Its content is the repression of the highly developed culture of artificial birth control of the Middle Ages, especially contraception and abortion, which in late medieval and early modern times deprives feudal and ecclesiastical lords of the manpower required to regain economic prosperity. Its target are the foremost experts of medieval birth control, the “midwives = witches”. The thesis is discussed with respect to ecclesiastical and secular laws of the 15th and 16th centuries punishing all forms of birth control, the disappearance of medieval birth control knowledge in early modern times, and the dramatic rise in birth rates leading to the European Population Explosion of the 18th century. While the midwives are the prime target during the Great Witch Hunt, suppression of contraception and abortion continues after the end of the persecutions by other methods, making knowledge of birth control the great taboo of the Occident until the 1960s.

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