Legal Definition of Pregnancy: Everything You Need to Know
Pregnancy is defined by medical writer; to be the state of a female who has within her ovary or womb.9 min read
2. Signs of Pregnancy
3. Duration of Pregnancy
4. Laws Regarding Pregnancy
This is defined by medical writer; to be the state of a female who has within her ovary or womb, a fecundated germ which gradually becomes developed in the latter receptacle.
The subject may be considered with reference to the signs of pregnancy; its duration; and the laws relating to it.
The fact that women sometimes conceal their state of pregnancy in order to avoid disgrace, and to destroy their offspring in its mature or immature state; and that in other cases to gratify the wishes of relations, the desire to deprive the legal successor of his just claims, to gratify their avarice by extorting money, and to avoid or delay execution, pregnancy is pretended, renders it necessary that an inquiry should take place to ascertain whether a woman has or has not been pregnant.
Signs of Pregnancy
There are certain signs which usually indicate this state; these have been divided into those which affect the system generally, and those which affect the uterus.
The changes observed in the system from conception and pregnancy, are principally the following; namely, increased irritability of temper, melancholy, a languid cast of countenance, nausea, heart-burn, loathing of food, vomiting in the morning, an increased salivary discharge, feverish heat, with emaciation and costiveness, occasionally depravity of appetite, a congestion in the head, which gives rise to spots on the face, to headache, and erratic pains in the face and teeth. The pressure of increasing pregnancy, occasions protrusion of the umbilicus, and, sometimes, varicose tumors or anasarcous swellings of the lower extremities. The breasts also enlarge, an areola, or brown circle is observed around the nipples, and a secretion of lymph, composed of milk and water, takes place. It should be remembered that these do not occur in every pregnancy, but many of them in most cases.
The loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, etc. Although attendant upon pregnancy in many cases, are very equivocal signs.
The changes which affect the uterus, are, a suppression and cessation of the menses; an augmentation in size of the womb, which becomes perceptible between the eighth and tenth weeks; as time progresses, the enlargement continues about the middle of pregnancy, the woman feels the motion of the child, and this is called quickening. The vagina is also subject to alteration, as its glands throw out more mucus, and apparently prepare the parts for the passage of the fetus. These are the general signs of pregnancy; it will be proper to consider them more minutely, though briefly, in detail.
Changes in the Abdomen
The expansion and enlargement of the abdomen. This sign is not visible during the early months of pregnancy, and by art in the disposition of the dress and the use of stays, it may be concealed for a much longer period. The corpulency of the woman or the peculiarity of her form, may also contribute to produce the same effect. In common cases, where there is no such obstacle, this sign is generally manifest at the end of the fourth month, and continues till delivery. But the enlargement may originate from disease; from suppression or retention of the menses; tympanites; dropsy; or schirrosity of the liver and spleen. Patient and assiduous investigation and professional skill are requisite to pronounce as to this sign, and all these may fail.
Changes in the Breasts
Change in the state of the breasts: They are said to grow larger and more firm; but this enlargement occurs in suppressed menses, and sometimes at the period of the cessation of the menses; and sometimes they do not enlarge till after delivery. The dark appearance of the areola is no safe criterion; and the milky fluid may occur without pregnancy.
The suppression of the menses: Although this usually follows conception, yet in some cases menstruation is carried on till within a few weeks of delivery. When the suppression takes place, it is not always the effect of impregnation; it may, and frequently does arise, from, disease. Some medical authors, however, deem the suppression to be a never failing consequence of conception.
The motion of the fetus in the mother's womb: In the early months of pregnancy this is wanting, but afterwards it can be ascertained. In cases of concealed pregnancy it cannot be ascertained from the declarations of the mother, and the examiner must discover it by other means. When the fetus is alive, the sudden application of the hand, immediately after it has been dipped in cold water, over the regions of the uterus, will generally produce a motion of the fetus; but this is not an infallible test, the fetus may be dead, or there may be twins; in the first case, then, there will be no motion and in the latter, the motion is not felt sometimes until a late period. Vide Quickening.
Changes in the Uterus
Alteration in the state of the uterus. This is ascertained by what is technically called the touch. This is an examination, made with the hand of the examiner, of the uterus.
By the application of auscultation to the impregnated uterus, it is said certainty can be obtained. The indications of the presence of a living fetus in the womb, as derived from auscultation, are two:
- The action of the fetal heart. This is marked by double pulsations; that of the fetus generally exceeds in frequency the maternal pulse. These pulsations may be perceived at the fifth, or between the fifth and sixth months. Their situation varies with that of the child.
- The other auscultatory sign to denote the presence of the fetus has been variously denominated the placental bellows sound, the placental sound, and the utero placental souffle. It is generally agreed that its seat is in the enlarged vessels of the portion of the uterus which is immediately connected with the placenta.
According to Laennec, it is an arterial pulsation perfectly isochronous with the pulse of the mother, and accompanied by a rushing noise, resembling the blast of a pair of a bellows. It commonly begins to be beard with the aid of the stethoscope, (an instrument invented by Professor Laennec of Paris, for examining the chest) at the end of the fourth month of pregnancy. In the case of twins, Laennec detected the pulsation of two fetal hearts before delivery, by means of this instrument.
Other Signs of Pregnancy
Another sign of pregnancy has been discovered, which is said never to fail. It is the peculiar dark color which the mucous membrane of the vagina acquires during this state. It was only after an examination of four thousand five hundred women that M. Jacquemin came to the conclusion which be formed of the certainty of this sign.
It is, always difficult though perhaps not impossible to ascertain the presence of the fetus, and on the other band, many of the signs which would indicate such presence, have been known to fail.
Duration of Pregnancy
The duration of human pregnancy is not certain, and probably is not the same in every woman. It may perhaps be safely stated that forty weeks is the ordinary duration, though much discussion has taken place among medico-legal writers on this subject, and opinions fluctuate largely. This is occasioned perhaps by the difficulty of ascertaining the time from which this period begins to run.
Laws Regarding Pregnancy
The laws relating to pregnancy are to be considered, first, in reference to the fact of pregnancy; and, secondly, in relation to its duration.
As to the fad of pregnancy. There are two cases where the fact whether a woman is or has been pregnant is of importance; when it is supposed she pretends pregnancy, and when she is charged with concealing it.
Pretended pregnancy may arise from two causes: the one when a widow feigns herself with child, in order to produce a supposititious heir to the estate. In this case in England the heir presumptive may have a writ de ventre inspiciendo, to examine whether she be with child or not; and if she be, to keep her under proper restraint until delivered; but if, upon examination, the widow be found not pregnant, the presumptive heir shall be admitted to the inheritance, though liable to lose it again on the birth of a child within forty weeks from the death of the husband.
The second cause of pretended pregnancy occurs when a woman has been sentenced to death, for the commission of a crime. At common law, in case this plea be made before execution, the court must direct a jury of twelve matrons, or discreet women, to ascertain the fact, and if they bring in their verdict quick with child, execution shall be staid generally till the next session of the court, and so from session to session till either she be delivered, or proves by the lapse of time, not to have been with child at all.
It is proper to remark that a verdict of the matrons that the woman is pregnant is not sufficient, she must be found to be quick with child. Whether under the English law a woman would be hanged who could be proved to be privement enceinte, beyond all doubt, is not certain; but in this country, it is presumed if it could be made to appear, indubitably: that the woman was pregnant, though not quick with child, the execution would be respited until after delivery.
Fatal errors have been made by juries of matrons. A case occurred at Norwich in England in 1833, of a murderess who pleaded pregnancy. Twelve married women were impaneled on the jury; after an hour's examination, they returned a verdict that she was not quick with child. She was ordered for execution. Fortunately three of the principal surgeons in the place, fearing some error, waited upon the convict and examined her; they found her not only pregnant, but quick with child. The matter was represented to the judge, who respited the execution, and on July 11th she was safely delivered of a living child.
In New York it is provided by legislative enactment, that "if a female convict, sentenced to the punishment of death, be pregnant, the sheriff shall summon a jury of six physicians, and shall give notice to the district attorney, who shall have power to subpoena witnesses. If, on such inquisition, it shall appear that the female is quick with child, the sheriff shall suspend the execution, and transmit the inquisition to the governor. Whenever the governor shall be satisfied that she is no longer quick with child, he shall issue Iiis warrant for execution, or commute it, by imprisonment for life in the state prison."
By the laws of France "if a woman condemned to death declares herself to be pregnant, and it is verified that she is pregnant, she shall not suffer her punishment till after her delivery."
Concealed pregnancy seldom takes place except for the criminal purpose of destroying the life of the fetus in utero, or of the child immediately after its birth. The extreme facility of extinguishing the infant life, at the time, or shortly after birth, and the experienced difficulty of proving this unnatural crime, has induced the passage of laws, in perhaps all the states, as well as in England and other countries, calculated to facilitate the proof, land also to punish the very act of concealment of pregnancy and death of the child, when, if born alive, it would have been a bastard.
The English statute of Jac. 1, required that any mother of such child who had endeavored to conceal its birth, should prove, by one witness at least, that the child was actually born dead; and for want of such proof it arrived at the forced conclusion that the mother murdered it. But it was considered a blot upon even the English code, and it was therefore repealed by 43 Geo. III.
An act of assembly of Pennsylvania, of 1781, made the concealment of the death of a bastard child conclusive evidence to convict the mother of murder; which was repealed by the act of of 1790, which declared that the constrained presumption that the child whose death is concealed, was therefore murdered by the mother, shall not be sufficient to convict the party indicted, without probable presumptive proof is given that the child was born alive.
The law was further modified by the act of of 1794, which declares that the concealment of the death of any such child shall not be conclusive evidence to convict the party indicted of the murder of her child, unless the circumstances attending it be such as shall satisfy the mind of the jury, that she did willfully and maliciously try take away the life of such a child. The last mentioned act punishes the concealment of the death of a bastard child by fine and imprisonment.
As to the duration of pregnancy. Lord Coke lays down the peremptory rule that forty weeks is the longest time allowed by law for gestation. There does not, however, appear to be any time fixed by the law as to the duration of pregnancy.
The civil code of Louisiana provides that the child capable of living, which is born before the one hundred and eightieth day after the marriage, is not presumed to be the child of the husband; every child born alive more than six months after conception, is presumed to be capable of living. The same rule applies with respect to the child born three hundred days after the dissolution of the marriage, or after sentence of separation and board.
Disavowing the Child
The Code Civil of France contains the following provision. The child conceived during the marriage, has the husband for its father. Nevertheless, the husband may disavow the child, if he can prove that during the time that has elapsed between the three hundredth and the one hundred and eightieth before its birth he was prevented either by absence, or in consequence of some accident, or on account of some physical impossibility, from cohabiting with his wife. A child born before the one hundred and eightieth day after the marriage cannot be disavowed by the husband in the following cases:
- When he had knowledge of the pregnancy before the marriage.
- When he has assisted in writing the act of birth, [a certificate stating the birth and sex of the child, the time when born, etc. required by law to be filed with a proper officer and recorded,] and when that act has been signed by him, or when it contains his declaration that he cannot sign; when the child is not declared capable of living. And the legitimacy of a child born three hundred days after the dissolution of the marriage may be contested.