Abortion and infanticide. Dating embryos and assessing the maturity of newborn children were crucially important for the punishment and prevention of abortion and infanticide in the later 1700s. The perceived severity of these crimes increased with the progress of pregnancy: ‘intentional abortion in the sixth month destroys a more certain hope of full maturity of the fetus than in the third month’, wrote Johannes Metzger, the Königsberg expert in legal medicine, in 1793. The search, central to infanticide cases, for signs that reliably distinguished a live-born from a still-born child opened up new questions about life in the womb. The lungs of a live-born baby were full of air and so floated in water while the lungs of a still-born sank—but what if the child could already breathe inside, as cries from the womb seemed to suggest?

Temporalizing pregnancy

Soemmerring’s representation of embryonic development was made possible by important longer-term transformations that began in the late 1600s.

Humans were no longer seen as an exception in nature. Legal medical experts, drawing on humoralism, argued that pregnancy lasted no longer in the horse (hot) than in the donkey (cold). Nature was efficient: if it could, occasionally, complete the production of a healthy human being in five months, then why should it, in most cases, take nine? Why were children born at nine months healthier than those delivered earlier or later? The ‘viability’ of the newborn child was increasingly understood not as ability to survive but as maturity, manifest in the perfect external form. Immature children had too wide or still closed openings, flawed nails and failed to cry at birth.

This opened a space for imagining the progress of the embryo not just as an increase in size but also as a change in form. Pregnancy came to be seen as a developmental process of fixed duration. Its stages and healthy progress were evaluated by clinical examination. This reframing of both embryonic development and pregnancy was based in the broader ‘temporalization’ of European culture that, in the decades around 1800, resulted in newly historical approaches to nature and society.

A non-developmental series of models from Florence, early 1800s


Drawings of the stages of pregnancy to guide clinical examination, 1822