According to early modern gynecological manuals, superfetation is “a repeated conception”—a rare but real medical phenomenon when a woman who is already pregnant becomes pregnant again. The anonymous author of The English Midwife Enlarged (1682) responds to those who dispute superfetation, explaining that when a woman is “animated with an earnest desire of Copulation,” the “overheated” opening of the womb in combination with “the impetuous endeavor of the seed” allows the woman to conceive again (196). Even though twins are almost always “begot in the same Act,” the author argues there is always the possibility that if one of these children resembles the husband’s “Proctor” or “Galant”—superfetation has occurred (196).
Superfetation is a medical condition with mythical roots, connected to the marvelous and unbelievable. As Jane Sharp observes in The Midwives Book (1671), “So Alcumena in Plautus Amphitryo, is said to have brought forth Hercules at seven Moneths, and Iphyclus three moneths after. Hippocrates tells us of a woman of Larista who was delivered of two perfect-living Children at forty days distance one from the other” (71-2). In these case studies, Sharp references a famous Roman play, Amphitryo—one of the most popular in the early modern period—alongside an anecdote about an average woman. Amphitryo uses superfetation as a tragicomic plot point and undoubtedly influenced William Shakespeare, who explores the power of the pregnant body in The Winter’s Tale, multiplying Hermione’s pregnancies and her husband’s “anxiety about his wife’s reproductive powers” (Bradley and Pollard 257). Indeed, in Shakespeare’s play, Leontes characterizes his pregnant wife’s interactions with his friend as, “Too hot, too hot!” (1.2.108). This is, perhaps, a direct reference to the “overheated” opening of the womb, as Michelle Ephraim suggests in “Hermione’s Suspicious Body: Adultery and Superfetation in The Winter’s Tale.”
As all of the above anecdotes demonstrate, superfetation is a medical condition tied to illicit and powerful female desire. It is telling that most of the recorded cases of superfetation tell the story of an “overheated” woman who sleeps with multiple men, even though superfetation can and does occur within monogamous relationships. Valerie Traub remarks, in her study of lesbianism in the early modern period, that “the legitimate social identities available to women—maid, wife, mother, and widow—were tied to marital status” (40). These categories continue to dictate how women are seen and responded to in medical settings, especially when they’re pregnant. But the vision of even the most “legitimate” pregnant body already defies the categorizations Traub describes. Pregnant bodies inhabit the shadowy borderlands between the categories of wife and mother; pregnancy is an in-between state charged with threatening sexuality. As Beatrice Bradley and Tanya Pollard note, Alcumena’s pregnancy “draws attention to her fertile and sexually active body” in Amphitryo (255), and Leontes irrationally imagines Hermione’s girth as inseparable from her desire for his friend, Polixenes, who “has made her swell thus” (2.1.60-62). Similarly, the featured image above of “Dorothie, great with childe with many children” is taken from Ambroise Paré’s Of Monsters and Prodigies (1634), suggesting that to be pregnant with many children is monstrous, paternity aside (655). Superfetation takes the threat of pregnancy a step further—to be pregnant with two men’s children at once is an act of bodily defiance, to be even more engorged, desirous, and “hot.”
These fears and anxieties are further compounded, as superfetation is often tied to anxieties over miscegenation and the racist trope of the hyper-fertile woman of color (for a more in-depth study on these stereotypes as well as the realities of enslaved women’s reproductive lives, see Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (2004)). In his chapter on superfetation, French physician Ambroise Paré (1665) tells the stories of a “slave or bond-woman, who, by copulation on the same day, brought one forth like unto her master, and another like unto his steward” as well as a woman who brought forth one child when she was due, and then another five months later (Chapter XXXII). Jennifer Wu, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Manhattan, describes superfetation as “a rare phenomenon classically illustrated in medical textbooks with a black baby and a white baby who are twins” (Mueller n.pag.). As I’ve argued elsewhere, race is inextricable from the stories we tell ourselves about “problem” pregnancies, stories that medical institutions and establishments continue to order their care around. The illustrations Wu describes have little to do with the wide variety of coloration possible in mixed-race children and more to do with anxieties over female desire, miscegenation, and “illegitimate” progeny.
As Benjamin Mueller’s recent New York Times article “Paternity Case for a New Jersey Mother of Twins Bears Unexpected Results: Two Fathers” (2015) demonstrates, superfetation continues to occur, and is present in our cultural imagination, despite being markedly absent from modern gynecological manuals. The figurative language in Mueller’s account conjures early modern medical texts; he speaks of “a tangled web of love and biology,” the woman’s “progeny” and how her claims in the court case “slowly fell apart” as she revealed having sex “with a second, unidentified man within a week of having sex with her romantic partner” (n.pag.). These cases are, of course, more sensational than the many cases of superfetation that go unnoticed, when another fertilization occurs within 24-48 hours after the first, but there is a reason that these “tangled webs” garner more attention. What beliefs, fears, and anxieties does superfetation—a state of being that marries the mythical and the medical—continue to confirm?
At first, I thought superfetation was absent from modern gynecological manuals because it wasn’t a “problem”—the paternity of a child is not, technically, a factor in the care of a pregnant person (although genetic considerations are taken into account when testing and caring for an unborn child). As early modern gynecological manuals observe, however, there are in fact health concerns tied to superfetation, however rare. In François Maurice’s The Diseases of Women With Child (1672), he argues that when superfetation has occurred, there are two different “After-burthen[s]” expelled (163-64). It stands to reason, even if this is not true, that children conceived at different times but carried at the same time would need special attention. As Dan Fletcher takes pains to write in the recent Time article, “How Can a Pregnant Woman Get Pregnant Again?” (2009), “the last known case of superfetation had a happy ending. In 2007, a British woman gave birth to a boy and girl who were conceived three weeks apart, with no undue complications” (n.pag.). As this case makes clear, women who carry multiple children are given the same care regardless of when the children were conceived—but it would perhaps behoove medical professionals to know when superfetation has occurred in accounting for discrepancies in growth and viability between unborn children who share a womb.
Despite the fact superfetation is a real medical condition, reports and studies of superfetation continue to be written with an air, a tone, of wonder. Khalil A. Cassimally, in a blog for Scientific American, takes pains to distinguish the common occurrence of superfetation in animals from the accidental occurrence in humans, arguing that while “there is evidence that superfetation may indeed be part of the reproductive processes of certain animals, in humans, it is in all likelihood a rare reproductive abnormality. In other words, it probably occurs by accident” (n.pag.). Cassimally’s stark bifurcation of animal and human bodies erases the fact we have and live in messy, animal bodies—superfetation is, perhaps, an uncomfortable reminder of this, as well as how tied illicit female desire is to progeny, to the Child.
Cassimally concludes his post with the following sentiment: “While to me the phenomenon of superfetation seemed so amazing that I decided to write a blog post about it, I’m not so sure if superfetation is looked upon with the same awe by the girls” and invites readers to let him know in the comment section (emphasis mine, n.pag.). Indeed, all but two sources cited in this piece were written by men—it seems superfetation is still putting male audiences to their shifts. To quote Dr. Donnica Moore, when asked if superfetation occurred more often than medical manuals suggest, “For these sorts of cases, I have to say, most of our bodies don’t read the textbook” (Cox n.pag.). For me, at least, in response to Cassimally’s question, superfetation is so wonderful because it serves as a continual reminder that our bodies, pregnant bodies in particular, are desirous and generative and messy and mysterious—a reminder we could all use, now and again.
Featured Image: Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon, : quae praeter naturae ordinem, motum, et operationem, et in superioribus & his inferioribus mundi regionibus, … / per Conradum Lycosthenem. Public Domain. Wellcome Collection.
Anonymous. The English Midwife Enlarged. London, 1682. EEBO.
Bradley, Beatrice and Tanya Pollard. “Tragicomic Conceptions: The Winter’s Tale as Response to Amphitryo.” English Literary Renaissance 47.2, 2017.
Cassimally, Khalil A. “Superfetation: Pregnant While Already Pregnant.” Scientific American. April 27, 2011.
Cox, Lauren. “Arkansas Pregnant Woman Is Pregnant Again.” ABCNews. Sept. 24, 2009.
Ephraim, Michelle. “Hermione’s Suspicious Body: Adultery and Superfetation in The Winter’s Tale.” Performing Maternity in Early Modern England. Eds. Kathryn M. Moncrief and Kathryn R. McPherson. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007.
Fletcher, Dan. “How Can a Pregnant Woman Get Pregnant Again?” Time. Sept. 28, 2009.
Maurice, François. The Diseases of Women with Child. trans. Hugh Chamberlen. London, 1672. EEBO.
Morgan, Jennifer L. Laboring Women Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
Paré, Ambroise. Collected Works. Trans. Tho: Johnson. London, 1665. EEBO.
Sharp, Jane. The Midwives Book. London, 1671. EEBO.
Traub, Valerie. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press, 2002.