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date: 06 February 2023



  • Robert Sallares


  • Gender Studies
  • Science, Technology, and Medicine

Abortion was controversial in antiquity. Doctors taking the Hippocratic Oath (see hippocrates (2)) swore not to administer abortifacients, but other Hippocratic texts suggest that prostitutes (see prostitution, secular) often employed abortion. A Lysias fragment suggests that abortion was a crime in Athens against the husband, if his wife was pregnant when he died, since his unborn child could have claimed the estate. Greek temple inscriptions show that abortion made a woman impure for 40 days (see pollution).

The Stoics (see stoicism) believed that the foetus resembled a plant and only became an animal at birth when it started breathing. This attitude made abortion acceptable. Roman jurisprudence maintained that the foetus was not autonomous from the mother's body. There is no evidence for laws against abortion during the Roman republic. It was common during the early Roman empire (e.g. Ov. Am. 2. 14), and was practised for many reasons, e.g. for family limitation, in case of adultery, or because of a desire to maintain physical beauty. Soranus (Gynaecology 1. 59–65, Eng. trans. 1956) distinguished deliberate from spontaneous abortion, and abortion from contraception. He accepted abortion if the woman's life was in danger. Galen and Dioscorides (2) mention many plant products used, either orally or by vaginal suppository, to provoke abortions (see pharmacology). Some plants, e.g. aristolochia and squirting cucumber, can indeed have such effects. Mechanical methods were also used.

The emperors Severus and Caracalla towards ce 211 introduced the first definite ban on abortion in Rome as a crime against the rights of parents, and punished it with temporary exile. The spread of Christianity changed attitudes. The Teachings of the Apostles, the first Christian document to mention abortion, condemned it, as did the Letter of Barnabas, Tertullian, and many later writers. Christians regarded abortion, once the foetus was fully formed (40 days after conception), as murder of a living being.


  • E. Nardi, Procurato aborto nel mondo greco-romano (1971).
  • J. M. Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (1992).