Though resulting from a long-term process, the need to manage pregnancies both medically and bureaucratically became a state concern, especially from the 1920s onwards. A woman’s official obligation to notify the state of her pregnancy (and therefore to know it on time) goes beyond a matter of biopolicies and poses a range of contradictions. ‘Pregnant or not?’ – as an issue of knowledge – is a powerful tool for apprehending the tensions between individual freedom, privacy, institutional requirements and professional powers.
In order to better understand the historical meaning of pregnancy diagnostics in mid-twentieth-century France, this paper combines three dimensions: uncertainty and its management; the informational asymmetry between institutional agents and women; and the diachronic dimension of gestation. Writing this history sheds more light on an apparent paradox: while knowing and notifying one’s own pregnancy became a duty, the tools that could help women eliminate some doubt right from the first months of their pregnancy – in particular the innovation of laboratory diagnosis – was seen as a danger. When, in 1938, private laboratories began publishing advertisements for the laboratory test in the most widely-read newspapers, tending to reframe it as a commercial service, the anti-abortion crusade was increasing its propaganda and its political pressure. This crusade’s legal victory proved incomplete, but for a long time some of the most conservative physicians recommended great parsimony in prescribing testing. Combined with reducing the legal time limit for notification, this conflict shows how the state injunctions towards women could look like a ‘double bind’.