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DicoPolHiS

Political Dictionary of the History of Health

Caesarian section

In 19th century Belgium, post-mortem caesarean section turned into a politicized debate.Surgical technique for caesarean section, Wellcome collectionIn 19th century Belgium, post-mortem caesarean section turned into a politicized debate.

 

   In 1868 in Belgium, Gent’s Court of Appeal sentenced a midwife and a priest for conducting a Caesarean section on a deceased woman in order to baptise the foetus. This procedure had taken place a year earlier in the municipality of Aertrycke. The midwife, Mrs Vandenbussche, had been persuaded by the local priest to make a double incision with a pocket-knife through the pregnant woman’s abdomen. Leaving the (purportedly four months gone) foetus in place, the priest had poured blessed water on it, after which the midwife had stitched the incisions closed. The resulting trial initiated the politicization of post-mortem Caesarean section in 19th century Belgium.

 

   The Catholic practice of post-mortem C-section to baptismal ends was set in the framework of a Catholic international promotional campaign for the salvation of life, yet unborn, which had been launched in the 18th century. According to Catholic theologians and priests, Catholics had the duty to save the soul of all life-threatened infants to be, since, according to them all human beings are endowed with a soul from the moment of conception. In a predominantly Catholic country like Belgium where almost everybody was baptised, emergency baptism was a natural enough practice.

 

   But unlike emergency baptism, a post-mortem C-section was an exceptional practice. Instructions had been circulated in Catholic milieus toward the baptism of miscarried babies, foetuses bound in their mother’s bosom and life-threatened newborns. These directives taught in all seminaries, also prescribed as an act of charity, that anyone present at a pregnant woman’s deathbed should conduct the emergency baptism of the foetus. In other words, if no doctor was to be found, priests but also any Catholic were to take individual action. Many physicians objected to C-sections conducted by medically untrained Catholics, given the dangers this presented for a woman who may only appear to be dead.

 

   Against a background of growing philosophical tensions between Catholics and Liberals in 1860s Belgium, the daily press played a major part towards magnifying this dispute. The most debated element was the 1867 Caesarean section mentioned above. The lawsuit before Ghent’s Court of Appeal arising from these goings on stirred a deep emotion in public opinion because of the C-section’s appalling circumstances and because the procedure had taken place before death had been registered. Accordingly, the midwife and the complicit priest were accused of bodysnatching. However, the Court of Cassation ended up rejecting the claim, for no legal framework provided for the prosecution of the defendants. The law on tomb raiding only applied to graves, not to unburied corpses.

 

   It is this final ruling that set off the political debate, rather than the C-section act. In 1868, Jean-François Vleminckx, a Liberal, anticlerical doctor, called in Parliament for a new law that would guarantee the respect of corpses and the safety of human life. According to the physician, the Church authorities’ insistence on post-mortem Caesarean sections had made such a law necessary. At the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, Catholic parliamentarians, religious ministers and even some Catholic professors of medicine publicly defended the priests who wanted to extract infants from their mother’s womb for baptismal purposes. Circa 1870, Liberal Justice Minister Jules Bara mooted a repressive law on the matter, but it did not come about. After this political row, no post-mortem C-section conducted by inexperienced Catholics was ever again discussed in Parliament. Even so, the practice did not entirely die out, as indicated by a few incidents involving priests recorded at the end of the 19th century.

 

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Jolien Gijbels – KU Leuven

Références :

Jolien Gijbels, “Medical Compromise and Its Limits: Religious Concerns and the Postmortem Caesarean Section in Nineteenth-Century Belgium,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 93, 3 (2019), p. 305-334.

Claire Fredj, “Concilier le religieux et le médical: Les médecins, la césarienne post-mortem et le baptême au XIXe siècle,” dans Guido Alfani, Philippe Castagnetti, et Vincent Gourdon, Baptiser: Pratique sacramentelle, pratique sociale (XVIe - XXe siècles), Université de Saint-Étienne, 2009, p. 125–43.

To quote this paper : Jolien Gijbels, "Caesarian section" in Hervé Guillemain (ed.), DicoPolHiS, Le Mans Université, 2021.

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