Whatever happened to “quickening”?

tags: abortion

Ruth Graham is a regular Slate contributor. She lives in New Hampshire.

... For thousands of years, the quickening was arguably the most significant turning point in the average woman’s pregnancy. It had both philosophical and practical significance for women, and for centuries it also marked the legal and moral dividing line for when an abortion could be performed. Today, the quickening is noticed in passing, if at all. But it’s worth remembering this now-antiquated milestone, and celebrating it for what it can still mean.

The term quickening comes from the root word quick, an archaic synonym for “living.” (Think “the quick and the dead.”) The concept goes back at least to Aristotle, who believed that male fetuses take on human characteristics after 40 days in the womb, and female fetuses after about 80 days. For Aristotle, the quickening represented the moment when those fetuses became “animated.” At that point, the fetus becomes its own being—it achieves “ensoulment,” to invoke another archaic term. 

For everyday women, those first movements were not just a philosophical landmark but a practical one. In the days before blood tests and First Response kits, the quickening often provided the first reliable sign of a woman’s pregnancy. Yes, a missed period has always been a clue, but it’s not foolproof: Many women have irregular cycles, and some bleed lightly in the first months of pregnancy. The confirmation had emotional resonance, too. The 18th-century feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft wrote tenderly to her husband that her unborn child “took it into his head to frisk a little at being informed of your remembrance. I begin to love this little creature, and to anticipate his birth as a fresh twist to a knot, which I do not wish to untie.”

Historical accounts show that the quickening was also used to project an eventual due date. A horrifying 1816 article on “Negro Breeding Women” in the Colonial Journal, a British publication, advised slave owners to assume about six months between the quickening and birth, and to decrease workloads post-quickening. “The work of a woman with child should be carefully proportioned to her age, strength, and period of pregnancy,” declared the author, a doctor writing primarily to West Indian plantation owners. “After a woman has quickened, her labour should be somewhat lightened.”

For centuries the quickening also had important legal ramifications. British common law, eventually imported to Colonial America, outlawed abortion only if it took place after the quickening. Likewise, a pregnant woman could not be executed post-quickening. The English jurist William Blackstone wrote in 1770, “To be saved from the gallows a woman must be quick with child—for barely with child, unless he be alive in the womb, is not sufficient.” In other words, a fetus whose movements could not yet be detected was not yet fully alive. An 1812 Massachusetts court case, Commonwealth v. Bangs, confirmed that pre-quickening abortions “would remain beyond the scope of the law.” Even though states began to pass criminal abortion statutes in the 1820s, courts before 1850 rarely heard cases involving pre-quickening abortion.

Over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the quickening lost its prominence as a legal and moral distinction. In 1857 the American Medical Association lamented the “belief, even among mothers themselves, that the foetus is not alive till after the period of quickening.” The Catholic Church, which had long treated pre-quickening abortion as the destruction of only potential human life, finally forbade abortion at any stage in 1869. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court divided pregnancy into trimesters and discussed the quickening as a relic. Today state laws on abortion refer either to viability outside the womb or to a set number of weeks. ...

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