- Patty Baker
- Gender Studies
- Science, Technology, and Medicine
Updated in this version
Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.
Complex perceptions existed about abortion in the ancient world, indicated by different medical definitions of what constituted an abortive, contraceptive, and expulsive. According to Soranus (1st/2nd century ce) an abortive was “that which destroys what has been conceived”; a contraceptive (atokion) was something that prevents conception, and an expulsive (ekbolion) could be defined in two ways (Gyn 1.59–65). Some thought it was synonymous with an abortive because both resulted in the termination of a pregnancy. In contrast, others defined an expulsive strictly as shaking and leaping to dislodge the fetus from the womb. In explaining this, Soranus (Gyn 1.60) repeats a story told in the Hippocratic work (see hippocrates) Nature of the Child (13, L7.488–490; late 5th bce) about a dancing girl thought to be six days pregnant. She was told to expel the seed by jumping up and down so her heels touched her buttocks. After the seventh leap, the fetus dropped from her body. This technique for early-stage abortion was preferable to termination caused by pharmaceutical preparations and surgical intervention, which could cause harm to the mother. Therefore, Soranus stated that it was safer to prevent pregnancy than to perform an abortion (Gyn 1.62).
Since Soranus expressed concern about the health of the mother, he recommended a number of contraceptive recipes. Some of the ingredients he suggested were also used in abortifacients, but the dosages were higher and upsetting to the stomach (Gyn 1.63). If a woman intended to have an abortion, expulsion was recommended in the first thirty days of the pregnancy. After this, her womb had to be softened to release the fetus. She was advised to take extended baths and use softening vaginal suppositories a few days prior to venesection. As the Hippocratic writer of Aphorisms stated, “a pregnant women who is bled miscarries” (Aph. 5.31). Soranus concluded his section on abortion with a warning that sharp objects should not be used to separate the embryo from the womb because they could damage other parts of the body (Gyn 1.65).
The works of Hippocrates, Pliny the Elder, Galen, and Dioscorides (2) also listed plant products used, either orally or by vaginal suppository, to provoke abortions (see pharmacology). The plants mentioned in the Hippocratic recipes had two uses: they could purge the uterus to prepare it for conception or they could expel a fetus alive or dead. One of the toxic ingredients mentioned was the squirting cucumber, which was so potent that the Greek term for it (elaterion) meant purgative (Mul. 1.78)1
Surgical removal of the fetus was mentioned for difficult labour when the mother’s life was at risk, but there is no direct mention of this violent practice for anything but difficult presentations. Soranus (Gyn. 4.7–13) and Celsus, (1st century ce) (Med. 7.29) described embryotomy and the tools used for it, which included traction hooks and a decapitator. The Chistian apologist, Tertullian, (2nd/3rd century ce) also mentioned embryotomy and said it was an act of infanticide even though the mother’s life was at risk. According to him, a tool called an embryosphaktes, a bronze stylet, was used to inflict a secret death (De anim. 32). Archaeologically, these tools are difficult to identify because hooks and knives were multifunctional. As yet, there are no tools directly associated with abortion or embryotomy known to us in the archaeological record. However, there are three possible traction hooks from Pompeii, with steel blades and bronze handles, but a direct association with abortion or embryotomy cannot be verified.2
The recipes and the Hippocratic story of the dancing girl seemingly conflict with a passage in the Hippocratic Oath that is sometimes translated as “abortions should not be performed by physicians.” The passage, however, is specific and states that a pessary should not be given as a means to cause an abortion. This is likely because of the harsh ingredients used in them. It was not until the first century ce that the medical writer Scribonius Largus took the passage to mean that physicians taking the Oath should not perform terminations of any kind (Compositiones 5).3 Even though some disagreed with the practice, abortions were, for the most part, legal. There is a 5th/4th-century bce fragment from Lysias that suggests that abortion was a crime in Athens. If a wife aborted a child after a husband died, the wife was punished, since the unborn child could have claimed the estate of the deceased father. Thus, the crime committed by the mother was against the father rather than the fetus. Similarly, Roman jurisprudence maintained that the fetus was not autonomous from the mother's body, so the fetus had no rights of its own. The first Roman laws against it were introduced in the third century ce and, as with the Lysias fragment, punishment was recommended if the woman had an abortion without the consent of the father, denying him an heir.4 The question of when life began, on which there were different views, also influenced attitudes towards abortion. According to Aristotle life started when the fetus began to move (Hist. an. 583b14–23). This was on the fortieth day for the male and ninetieth day for the female. The Stoics (see stoicism), on the other hand, believed that the fetus resembled a plant and only became an animal at birth, when it started breathing.5
Abortions were performed for numerous reasons: for family limitation, in cases of adultery, and out of a concern for health. For the last, Soranus argued that a uterus could be too small to accommodate a growing fetus, or it could have had knobby swellings and fissures (Gyn. 1.60). There only seems to have been disapproval for the practice, aside from denying the father an heir, when abortions were performed so that a woman could maintain her appearance (e.g., Ov. Am. 2.14).
According to certain religious prohibitions, women who had aborted were not permitted to enter Greek sanctuaries. It is unclear, however, whether this was for a miscarriage, abortion, or both. The terms for abortion in Greek and Latin are the same as those for miscarriage: phthora, diaphthora, ektrosmos, and in Latin abortus.6 There is only one explicit statement about exclusion because of abortion. A 1st/2nd-century bce inscription from Philadelphia (LSA 20) makes explicit reference to abortive drugs and contraceptives.7 Women were also banned from entering sanctuaries if they had given birth or were menstruating, so the pollution of abortion and miscarriage was likely to have been in relation to functions of the female body. Attitudes changed with the rise of Christianity. Tertullian, used abortion in his Apology, arguing that it was murder, to distinguish between the practices of pagans and Christians (see christianity). However, in his other works, he takes a softer stance, admitting that sometimes terminations might be best for the mother.8 The Teachings of the Apostles,9 the first Christian document to mention abortion, condemned it, as did the Letter of Barnabas (19.5). Christians regarded abortion, once the fetus was fully formed (forty days after conception), as the murder of a living being, which became the prevailing opinion on the matter.
- Celsus. On Medicine, Volume III: Books 7–8. Translated by W. G. Spencer. Loeb Classical Library 336. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938.
- Hippocrates. Ancient Medicine. Airs, Waters, Places. Epidemics 1 and 3. The Oath. Precepts. Nutriment. Translated by W. H. S. Jones. Loeb Classical Library 147. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1923.
- Hippocrates. Generation. Nature of the Child. Diseases 4. Nature of Women and Barrenness. Edited and translated by Paul Potter. Loeb Classical Library 520. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.
- Soranus. Gynaecology. Translated by Owsei Temkin. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956.
Links to Digital Materials
- Barr, Julian. Tertullian and the Unborn Child: Christian and Pagan Attitudes in Historical Perspective. London: Routledge, 2017.
- Dean-Jones, Lesley A. Women’s Bodies in Classical Greek Science. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
- Demand, Nancy. Birth, Death and Motherhood in Classical Greece. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
- Kapparis, Konstantinos. Abortion in the Ancient World. London: Bloomsbury, 2002.
- King, Helen. Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece. London: Routldge, 1998.
- Nardi, Enzo. Procurato aborto nel mondo greco-romano. Milan: Giuffrè, 1971.
- Nardi, Enzo. “Aborto e omicidio nella civiltà classica.” In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, 2, no. 13 (1980): 366–384.
- Parker, Robert. Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
- Pepe, Laura. “Pregnancy and Childbirth, or the Right of the Father. Some Reflections about Motherhood and Fatherhood in Ancient Greece.” Rivista di diritto ellenico 2 (2012): 255–274.
- Riddle, John M. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1992.
- Riddle, John M. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1997.
- Totelin, Laurence M. V. Hippocratic Recipes: Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Greece. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.
1. Laurence M. V. Totelin, Hippocratic Recipes: Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Greece (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009).
2. John Stewart Milne, Surgical Instruments in Greek and Roman Times (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907).
3. Helen King, Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece (London: Routledge, 1998).
4. Jane F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society (London: Croom Helm, 1986).
5. Anthony A. Long, “Soul and Body in Stoicism.” Phronesis 27, no. 1 (1982): 43.
6. Robert Parker, Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
7. Konstantinos Kapparis, Abortion in the Ancient World (London: Bloomsbury, 2002).
8. Julian Barr, Tertullian and the Unborn Child: Christian and Pagan Attitudes in Historical Perspective (London: Routledge, 2017).
9. John T. Noonan, Jr., “Abortion and the Catholic Church: A Summary History” (1967). Natural Law Forum. Paper 126.