A recent article by Ken Armstrong of Pro Publica notes that Justice Alito’s leaked opinion frequently cites Sir Matthew Hale, a 17th-century jurist came up with the idea that husbands can’t be prosecuted for raping their wives. He also sentenced women to death as “witches,” and his misogyny was so over the top it stood out even in his time.
Hale was Lord Chief Justice of England in 1671. In his time, Hale was a respected, perhaps even venerated, jurist known for piety and sober judgment. He wrote a two-volume legal treatise, “The History of the Pleas of the Crown,” that has proved influential ever since.
Alito invokes “eminent common-law authorities,” including Hale, to show how abortion was viewed historically not as a right, but as a criminal act. “Two treatises by Sir Matthew Hale likewise described abortion of a quick child who died in the womb as a ‘great crime’ and a ‘great misprision,’” Alito wrote.
Even before “quickening” — defined by Alito as “the first felt movement of the fetus in the womb, which usually occurs between the 16th and 18th week of pregnancy” — Hale believed an abortion could qualify as homicide. Hale wrote that if a physician gave a woman ‘with child’ a ‘potion’ to cause an abortion, and the woman died, it was ‘murder’ because the potion was given ‘unlawfully to destroy her child within her,’” Alito wrote.
Courts have long leaned on precedents established by old cases and the scholarship of legal authorities from centuries gone by. But what happens when you trace citations back to their ancient source? In Hale’s case, you sometimes find a man conceiving precepts out of thin air. Other times it was the opposite, as he clung to notions that were already becoming anachronistic in the last half of the 17th century.
In the 1970s, states began to abandon the marital rape exemption, in whole or in part. In 1981, the Supreme Court of New Jersey wrote that it could find no support for Hale’s proposition among earlier writers. Hale’s declaration, the court found, “cannot itself be considered a definitive and binding statement of the common law, although legal commentators have often restated the rule since the time of Hale without evaluating its merits.” In 1984, the Supreme Court of Virginia wrote: “Hale’s statement was not law, common or otherwise. At best it was Hale’s pronouncement of what he observed to be a custom in 17th century England.” The Virginia court went on to note, “Moreover, Hale cites no authority for his view nor was it subsequently adopted, in its entirety, by the English courts.”
Like the marital rape exemption, the so-called Hale Warning to jurors caused centuries of misfortune in the American courts.
In “Pleas of the Crown,” Hale called rape a “most detestable crime.” Then, in words quoted many times since, he wrote, “It must be remembered, that it is an accusation easy to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent.”
Hale evoked the fear of the false accuser — and made for that fear a legal frame, which lasted for more than 300 years. In weighing the evidence in cases of alleged rape, jurors (all men, in Hale’s time and for long after) needed to consider a series of factors, Hale wrote. Did the woman cry out? Did she try to flee? Was she of “good fame” or “evil fame”? Was she supported by others? Did she make immediate complaint afterward?
Armstrong notes that conservative Supreme Court justices will cherry-pick an Enlightenment-era man as a timeless authority on reproductive rights but ignore other, more recent philosophical views on women, mothering, and the sexual double standard.
Armstrong K, 2022. Draft Overturning Roe v. Wade Quotes Infamous Witch Trial Judge With Long-Discredited Ideas on Rape. Pro Publica