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Oskar Diethelm Library, Weill Cornell Medical College

Matthew Hale

Matthew Hale was an English judge and jurist, most known for writing Historia Placitorum Coronæ or The History of the Pleas of the Crown. It was first published in 1736, and a first edition of the text can be seen in the Diethelm Library. The text was published posthumously, even though Hale had left instructions in his will that none of his manuscripts should be printed after his death. Despite this, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito used the almost 300 year old text in the June 2022 case Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which overturned the right to abortion in America previously established by Roe v. Wade. Justice Alito stated in the opinion that there was “an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973”, and included Matthew Hale’s text as an example.

Most of the pre-19th century publications at the Diethelm Library document widespread access and a variety of procedures for abortion; in his text, Matthew Hale shows his lack of support for abortion.

The Diethelm Library has a first edition of this book because it is part of the library’s witchcraft collection. Hale was known for being involved in a famous witchcraft trial in 1662. The charge of witchcraft had fallen out of favor in England at this time, with many people believing that witchcraft was not real; despite this, Hale justified the sentence of death for two women for witchcraft using the Christian Bible, similar to his writings on abortion. This case was later relied on for the witchcraft trials in the Salem, Massachusetts.

In addition, Hale also defends martial rape in the same text used by Justice Alito in 2022; Hale wrote, “The husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband which she cannot retract.”