Proving Pregnancy

Gender, Law, and Medical Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century America

By Felicity M. Turner

246 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 2 halftones

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-6970-0
    Published: September 2022
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6969-4
    Published: September 2022
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6971-7
    Published: August 2022
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5910-5
    Published: August 2022

Gender and American Culture

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Examining infanticide cases in the United States from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, Proving Pregnancy documents how women—Black and white, enslaved and free—gradually lost control over reproduction to male medical and legal professionals. In the first half of the nineteenth century, community-based female knowledge played a crucial role in prosecutions for infanticide: midwives, neighbors, healers, and relatives were better acquainted with an accused woman's intimate life, the circumstances of her pregnancy, and possible motives for infanticide than any man. As the century progressed, women accused of the crime were increasingly subject to the scrutiny of white male legal and medical experts educated in institutions that reinforced prevailing ideas about the inferior mental and physical capacities of women and Black people. As Reconstruction ended, the reach of the carceral state expanded, while law and medicine simultaneously privileged federal and state regulatory power over that of local institutions. These transformations placed all women's bodies at the mercy of male doctors, judges, and juries in ways they had not been before.

Reframing knowledge of the body as property, Felicity M. Turner shows how, at the very moment when the federal government expanded formal civil and political rights to formerly enslaved people, the medical profession instituted new legal regulations across the nation that restricted access to knowledge of the female body to white men.

About the Author

Felicity M. Turner is associate professor of history at Georgia Southern University.
For more information about Felicity M. Turner, visit the Author Page.


“A call for scholars to recognize knowledge of pregnancy and childbirth as akin to a form of property. . . . Proving Pregnancy challenges the progressive narrative of history, showing how as women and African Americans achieved some gains in rights, they sacrificed an important source of power they had once monopolized.”—Black Perspectives

“In this illuminating new book, Felicity Turner makes a vital contribution to the growing scholarship around women’s reproductive health in the nineteenth century. . . . The rich and challenging stories she weaves using coroners’ inquests make this a fascinating, though often heart-breaking, book to read.”—Gender & History

“Turner has uncovered an important and provocative set of sources and opened a path for further investigation of troubled births, in the past and present.”—Nursing Clio

Proving Pregnancy offers a valuable contribution to historians’ understanding of how modern concepts of identity and community are shaped by gender and sexuality, as well as how knowledge can constitute a form of ownership.”—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"Turner shifts our understanding of the nineteenth-century issue of infanticide from a focus solely on criminality and deviancy to a thoughtful gendered intellectual history of property rights."—Deirdre Cooper Owens, author of Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology

"Innovative and original. Turner elucidates the underlying legal and cultural dynamics that orchestrated regulation around pregnancy, birth, and infant death, and the implications for how medical knowledge and criminal law developed constitutive authority over women's bodies."—Yvonne Pitts, author of Family, Law, and Inheritance in America: A Social and Legal History of Nineteenth-Century Kentucky