The Greek physician Hippocrates (Hippocratic Oath, anyone?) recommended "leaping violently" to induce a miscarriage. In 451 B.C.E., Aristophanes noted the abortifacient properties of the herb pennyroyal in his comedy Peace. Romans accepted abortion as a fact of life until the spread of Christian moral values led to some attempted restrictions on the practice. Silphium, an herb harvested around the Mediterranean, was said to be "worth it's weight in silver" in the ancient world. It was harvested to extinction, showing that there was a massive demand for it - perhaps due to it's uncommon effectiveness. Related species that survive today have been shown to prevent the implantation of fertilized eggs in mice.
|A coin from Cyrene, a Roman North African city, showing the silphium plant. Silphium was so in demand as a birth control or abortifacient that it was crucially important to Cyrene's economy.|
Thousands of years later, herbal texts circulated in 11th-century Europe that listed numerous plants thought to be capable of inducing an abortion. They weren't always exactly correct, since many are just poisons or purgatives that stress the body until a miscarriage occurs. But it shows that people who need an abortion have always used the methods available to them - however incomplete or dangerous they might be.
|An image of a midwife (right) preparing pennyroyal to induce an abortion in her patient. She holds a clearly drawn sprig of the herb. From a 13th-century manuscript of Pseudo-Apuleius' Herbarium.|
Today's anti-abortion rhetoric is largely propagated by evangelical Christians, who often view their opposition to abortion as central to their faith and political participation. However, early Christian leaders like St. Augustine mention the surgical removal of a fetus who died in utero in passing, as if it's an expected fact of life. Augustine was otherwise ambivalent about the idea - he drew a distinction between an early abortion and one which involved a fetus animatus, or a fetus which was more or less fully developed. The Bible itself does not mention abortion, but there are numerous verses that actually read as pro-choice! Ecclesiastes 6:3-5 reads:
If a man begets a hundred children, and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but he does not enjoy life's good things, and also has no burial, I say that an untimely birth is better off than he. For it comes into vanity and goes into darkness, and in darkness its name is covered; moreover it has not seen the sun or known anything; yet it finds rest rather than he.This verse shows that if the "enjoyment" of life is lacking, then an "untimely birth," or miscarriage, would be preferable. Since miscarriages happen naturally all the time, the line between miscarriage and abortion in the ancient world was very blurry. Hastening things along with an herbal tea or Hippocrates' "vigorous leaping" would have made perfect sense. Ultimately, the ignorance of the Christian men who wrote these texts had about women's bodies and lives mean that they can't tell us much about larger attitudes about abortion. When societies did attempt to restrict abortion in some way, women who needed abortions just got more secretive.
The experience of pregnancy and birth in the ancient and medieval world was a deeply dangerous one. Many women saw their mothers, sisters, and friends die that way. Without effective birth control, abortion was the only certain way to not be pregnant, and it was a necessity - both widely practiced and generally accepted.
Next up: the early modern period and the Victorian era! What did women in Shakespeare's time have to say about abortion? And what on earth was in "Madame Drunette's Lunar Pills," and how did they cure "female irregularities?" Tune in next time to find out!
Sources and further reading:
History of Contraception, Gynecology and Obstetrics, 2002
Intercourse, Conception, and Pregnancy in Ancient Greece and Rome
St. Augustine on abortion