“He Took It Into His Head to Frisk a Little”

How the quickening fell out of favor.

The Quickening
The quickening is unabashedly subjective. It isn’t the fetus’ first movement, but rather the mother’s perception of it.

Photo by Yuri Arcurs/Thinkstock

May 27, 1537 was a momentous day for Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII. She had been pregnant for some months, but now it was official: Seymour had felt the “quickening,” the child’s first kick in her womb. The milestone was announced to much rejoicing in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, with bonfires throughout the city and celebratory wine distributed to the poor. At Oxford a preacher delivered a sermon to mark the occasion: “Upon Trinity Sunday, like one given of God, the child quickened in the mother’s womb.” The assembled worshippers praised God, and prayed the new baby would be a prince.

My own recent quickening experience was a quieter affair. Around 22 weeks, working at home one afternoon—after I’d already heard a heartbeat, learned it was a girl, and seen the fetus kicking energetically on an ultrasound screen—I felt a painless but unmistakable punch in the gut. There she was, and that was it. As far as I know, it prompted not a single sermon or bonfire.

Historically speaking, my experience was an anomaly. For thousands of years, the quickening was arguably the most significant turning point in the average woman’s pregnancy. It had both philosophical and practical significance for women, and for centuries it also marked the legal and moral dividing line for when an abortion could be performed. Today, the quickening is noticed in passing, if at all. But it’s worth remembering this now-antiquated milestone, and celebrating it for what it can still mean.

The term quickening comes from the root word quick, an archaic synonym for “living.” (Think “the quick and the dead.”) The concept goes back at least to Aristotle, who believed that male fetuses take on human characteristics after 40 days in the womb, and female fetuses after about 80 days. For Aristotle, the quickening represented the moment when those fetuses became “animated.” At that point, the fetus becomes its own being—it achieves “ensoulment,” to invoke another archaic term. 

For everyday women, those first movements were not just a philosophical landmark but a practical one. In the days before blood tests and First Response kits, the quickening often provided the first reliable sign of a woman’s pregnancy. Yes, a missed period has always been a clue, but it’s not foolproof: Many women have irregular cycles, and some bleed lightly in the first months of pregnancy. The confirmation had emotional resonance, too. The 18th-century feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft wrote tenderly to her husband that her unborn child “took it into his head to frisk a little at being informed of your remembrance. I begin to love this little creature, and to anticipate his birth as a fresh twist to a knot, which I do not wish to untie.”

Mary Wollstonecraft.

Painting by John Opie courtesy National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

Historical accounts show that the quickening was also used to project an eventual due date. A horrifying 1816 article on “Negro Breeding Women” in the Colonial Journal, a British publication, advised slave owners to assume about six months between the quickening and birth, and to decrease workloads post-quickening. “The work of a woman with child should be carefully proportioned to her age, strength, and period of pregnancy,” declared the author, a doctor writing primarily to West Indian plantation owners. “After a woman has quickened, her labour should be somewhat lightened.”

For centuries the quickening also had important legal ramifications. British common law, eventually imported to Colonial America, outlawed abortion only if it took place after the quickening. Likewise, a pregnant woman could not be executed post-quickening. The English jurist William Blackstone wrote in 1770, “To be saved from the gallows a woman must be quick with child—for barely with child, unless he be alive in the womb, is not sufficient.” In other words, a fetus whose movements could not yet be detected was not yet fully alive. An 1812 Massachusetts court case, Commonwealth v. Bangs, confirmed that pre-quickening abortions “would remain beyond the scope of the law.” Even though states began to pass criminal abortion statutes in the 1820s, courts before 1850 rarely heard cases involving pre-quickening abortion.

Over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the quickening lost its prominence as a legal and moral distinction. In 1857 the American Medical Association lamented the “belief, even among mothers themselves, that the foetus is not alive till after the period of quickening.” The Catholic Church, which had long treated pre-quickening abortion as the destruction of only potential human life, finally forbade abortion at any stage in 1869. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court divided pregnancy into trimesters and discussed the quickening as a relic. Today state laws on abortion refer either to viability outside the womb or to a set number of weeks.

As pregnancy became an increasingly medicalized experience, the prominence of the quickening has faded. Today most women confirm their pregnancies in the first few weeks with over-the-counter pregnancy tests. Pregnancy is no longer much of a mystery, but a gradual process objectively observable by mother and doctor at just about every stage.

The quickening, by contrast, is unabashedly subjective. It isn’t the fetus’ first movement, but rather the mother’s perception of it—“in fact but a sensation,” in the words of a 19th-century anti-abortion activist. Accordingly, contemporary women’s approaches to it vary widely. My editor told me she’s not even sure when hers happened. When I asked around online, I heard stories of women crying with relief at the first kick, and even calling their families in celebration. For me, it was a small, sweet reassurance.

The quickening doesn’t make sense as a legal, philosophical, or moral boundary line anymore. But it’s that radical subjectivity that makes it worth preserving as an emotional milestone of motherhood. It’s a rare moment in contemporary pregnancy that can’t be captured by any blood test or machine, or even by a woman’s partner, who isn’t likely to feel those movements with his hands on her belly until later. I’m grateful to be pregnant in the 21st century, not the 16th, like Jane Seymour, or the 18th, like Mary Wollstonecraft. They both died within days of childbirth. But we shared something nonetheless: that first kick, ours alone.