Stillbirths in Nineteenth-Century Paris: Social, Legal and Medical Implications of a Statistical Category

Vincent Gourdon  By the same author

      Catherine Rollet  By the same author


AbstractIn the nineteenth century, the stillbirth rate in Paris was higher than in the rest of France, representing almost one birth in ten at the end of the century. These data, provided by the statistical institutions, reflect the difficulty of defining the category of stillbirths, located at the boundary between life and death, and subject to conflicting social viewpoints. After reviewing the legislation under the Ancien Régime and the Revolution, this article shows the confusion that prevailed after 1806 in the definitions used in the recording of stillbirths due to multiple pressures exerted by the different ministries, which in turn reflected the contradictory views held by the judicial system and by statisticians. For a long time, this confusion made it impossible to distinguish between “true stillbirths” and “false stillbirths”. Moreover, two factors increased the stillbirth rate in Paris: the early introduction of medical verification in the home of births and deaths, which improved the recording of stillbirths; and an obsessive fear of criminal abortions, which led to stricter monitoring of miscarriages, and to the recording of foetuses as stillbirths at ever earlier gestational ages.

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