Cases related to women and children constituted around one-fifth of all cases in the archives of the Norwegian Board of Forensic Medicine 100 years ago. A total of 36 % of all forensic autopsies were carried out on children. In comparison, in 2011 one hundred years later, children’s deaths constituted 2.2 % of all forensic autopsies (15).
These cases provide a horrifying insight into the consequences of the difficult life situation of unmarried mothers and their children. There was no information about contraception, and contraceptives were difficult to acquire, especially for unmarried women (2). Abortion was forbidden unless carried out by a doctor to save the life of the mother (16). The financial situation of unmarried mothers was also desperate. Even if the woman could claim child maintenance from the father, it was often difficult for the mother to prove the paternity of the child. The father’s name was stated for less than one-fifth of the children described as «illegitimate» (17). Work to improve women’s control of reproduction was therefore at least as important as the fight for woman’s suffrage. The pioneer Katti Anker Møller (1868 – 1945) established the first home for unmarried mothers in Kristiania (Oslo) in 1902, and together with her brother-in-law Johan Castberg (1862 – 1926) and others, she worked to improve the situation for women and children (18). Despite the improvement in women’s financial situation and the protection of the law for the child by means of new statutes and welfare benefit schemes, the poor relief fund was often still the only solution when unmarried mothers lost their paid work after the pregnancy was revealed (2, 16). We can also understand from reading the lectures of Paul Winge, a prison doctor and member of the Board, that unmarried women were a pariah caste when he describes them as «immoral», «promiscuous», «irresponsible», «naive», «syphilitic», «addicted to alcohol», «more or less weak-minded, not seldom imbecile» and «from the working class» (17, 19).
All the cases in the Board’s archives were part of investigations of possible offences, and many of the women were sentenced to prison or jail for murder or manslaughter. The results of the trials were only given in the archives as an exception, and because the charged person’s name and age were often incomplete, we have not attempted to investigate further the outcome of these cases and the fate of the women.
The reports provide a timely reminder of the value of women’s hard-earned rights in Norway. However, women over large parts of the globe are still denied access to contraception, and pregnancy and childbirth are responsible for the deaths of approximately 800 women every day (20). Every year around 50 000 young women die due to illegal abortions (21). Uneven gender distribution in countries such as India, China and Saudi-Arabia give some indication of sex-selective abortion (22, 23). These stories from Norway a hundred years ago are unfortunately still the reality for a large proportion of the world’s women.