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For our first podcast we’re examining where the term plead the belly came from, how it was used and by whom.
Origin of plead the belly
Pleading the belly was used by women in the UK and US to postpone her execution after being found guilty in a criminal trial by claiming she was pregnant. The earliest use of the term ‘plead the belly’ was 1228.
Once a woman had pled the belly she was examined by a jury of matrons. These were all women who had already given birth and were expected to be able to determine if a woman was pregnant.
The woman needed to be ‘quick with child- at least 15/16 weeks pregnant.
These examinations were often not reliable. Mary Wright tried to plead the belly and the jury of matrons found that she wasn’t pregnant. However, three surgeons also examined her and found that she was pregnant and gave birth a few months later.
If a woman was found to be pregnant she was held in custody until she gave birth and couldn’t come into contact with other pregnant women to prevent any fraudulent babies.
Unsurprisingly, this was often used fraudulently to delay execution.
Pleading the belly was also used in property cases. If a husband died, all property would revert to his brother unless the widow was pregnant. If she was, the estate would pass to her child.
The end of belly pleading
The ability to plead the belly was replaced in 1931 with the Expectant mothers act, which sent pregnant women to jail instead of executing them.
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