In most Western nations, the practice of backstreet abortion has virtually disappeared now that abortion has been legalised. I don’t intend to open a debate here about the moral issues, but rather to look at the historical background, especially in France.
Stigma of unwanted pregnancies
In many societies, having a baby out of wedlock was a serious problem, socially and/or economically. The shame that attached to unmarried mothers was acute. In Corsica, families sometimes committed honour killings if the daughter couldn’t, or wouldn’t, marry the father. Or the woman herself either killed the baby or left it on the steps of a nunnery to be adopted. In Ireland, until comparatively recently, unmarried mothers were treated as pariahs and their babies taken from them.
The only other course open was to abort the baby by some means, often with the help of a local woman who practised in secret. The methods were usually pretty dire – knitting needles, soapy water injected into the uterus, dangerous herbal concoctions – and often led to the death of the mother herself from septicaemia or poisoning.
In France, these women were known as faiseuses d’anges (angel makers). In fact, the term itself changed during the 19th century. Formerly, it also referred to wet nurses who deliberately allowed their charges to die. Later, it was used only for women who practised abortions.
French anti-abortion legislation
The French penal code laid down strict penalties for carrying out abortion. In 1791, these included being clapped in irons for 20 years. After World War I more stringent anti-abortion legislation aimed to reverse the demographic disaster of the war.
The legislation was somewhat relaxed during the 1920s, but it was significantly tightened during the early years of World War II. The numbers of clandestine abortions increased greatly in response to the difficult conditions and the frequent separation of couples by the war. In 1942, practising abortion was declared a crime against national security and carried the death penalty. The law was repealed at the Liberation.
In fact, only one woman was executed under this legislation. Marie-Louise Giraud was sent to the guillotine in 1943 for carrying out 27 abortions in the Cherbourg area. One of her “customers” died. The fact that she also rented rooms to prostitutes did nothing to help her cause under the moralistic Vichy regime. Maréchal Pétain refused to give her a reprieve. This cause célèbre was immortalised in the film Une Affaire de Femmes (1988), directed by Claude Chabrol.
My story ‘Angel Maker’ appears in my forthcoming collection of tales set in France, French Collection. A young woman’s boyfriend goes off to fight in the WWI trenches and she finds she is pregnant. Unwilling to risk the wrath of her family and the disapproval of the village, she has recourse to an angel maker.
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