History of abortion

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The practice of induced abortion—the deliberate termination of a pregnancy—has been known since ancient times. Various methods have been used to perform or attempt abortion, including the administration of abortifacient herbs, the use of sharpened implements, the application of abdominal pressure, and other techniques. The term abortion, or more precisely spontaneous abortion, is sometimes used to refer to a naturally occurring condition that ends a pregnancy, that is, to what is popularly called a miscarriage.



From primary sources

  • If a man strike a man's daughter and bring about a miscarriage, he shall pay ten shekels of silver for her miscarriage.
    If that woman die, they shall put his daughter to death.
    If, through a stroke, he bring about a miscarriage to the daughter of a freeman, he shall pay five shekels of silver.
    If that woman die, he shall pay one-half mana of silver.
    If he strike the female slave of a man and bring about a miscarriage, he shall pay two shekels of silver.
    If that female slave die, he shall pay one-third mana of silver.
  • If the lord of the world does not come here before that (time fixed by Ravana) the vile lord of demons will cut me into pieces with weapons just as a barber would cut to pieces the foetus with a sharp knife (in order to save a pregnant woman).
    • Sundarakanda (c. 900 BC), 28, 611; Sri V. V. Subba Rao & P. Geervani, eds. "Sarga 28", Valmiki Ramayana, Online
  • If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
    • Exodus (c. 600 BC), 21:22–25 (KJV). The meaning of the original Hebrew is debated. Compare the RSV and NIV translations:
      When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
      If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
  • I told her to spring up and down so as to kick her heels against her buttocks, and when she had sprung for the seventh time, the seed ran out on to the ground with a noise, and the girl on seeing it gazed at it and was amazed. [...] It was as if someone had removed the external shell of a raw egg, and the fluid part inside was visible through the internal membrane. [...] It was red and roundish; broad, white strands were seen to be present inside the membrane, pressed together with thick, red serum, and around the membrane on the outside there was bloody material. Through the middle of the membrane something narrow came out, which appeared to me to be an umbilical cord, and through this the movement of breath in and out first took place. From this the membrane spread out and completely enclosed the seed. This is how I saw the seed to be on the sixth day.
    • Hippocratic Corpus, De natura pueri (c. 5th century BC), 2 [Littré VII, 492] (tr. Paul Potter)
  • Concerning pregnancies that do not proceed in the normal way, but which are cut to pieces inside (sc. the uterus), the matter is as follows. First place a cloth over the woman, girding it above each breast, and also you must cover her head with a cloth, so that she will not see what you are doing and become frightened. Now, if the fetus falls sideways and one arm comes out, take hold of the arm and, drawing it as far out as possible, excoriate the upper arm and strip its bone bare; bind a fish-skin around two fingers of the hand so that the flesh will not slip away, and after that make an incision all around the shoulder and separate it at the joint. Next replace the fetus’s head in its natural position, and then draw the fetus downward; with your finger cave the fetus’s body in, by using a blade through the ribs or the collar bone, so that the body will expel air and collapse, which makes its passage to the outside easier. If you are able to bring out the head in the natural way, fine; if not, crush it to pieces, and in this way draw the fetus down and out. Then pour copious warm water over the woman and anoint her with olive oil; command her to lie down and cross her legs; after that have her drink sweet white wine hardly diluted with water; and grind resin into honey, mix this with wine, and give it to her to drink.
    • Hippocratic Corpus, De exsectione foetus (c. 4th century BC), 1 [Littré VIII, 512] (tr. Paul Potter)
  • I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion. But I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art.
  • But when, I take it, the men and the women have passed the age of lawful procreation, we shall leave the men free to form such relations with whomsoever they please, except daughter and mother and their direct descendants and ascendants, and likewise the women, save with son and father, and so on, first admonishing them preferably not even to bring to light anything whatever thus conceived, but if they are unable to prevent a birth to dispose of it on the understanding that we cannot rear such an offspring.
    • Plato, Republic (c. 375 BC), V, 461b–c (tr. Paul Shorey)
  • And pregnant women also must take care of their bodies, not avoiding exercise nor adopting a low diet; this it is easy for the lawgiver to secure by ordering them to make a Journey daily for the due worship of the deities whose office is the control of childbirth. As regards the mind, however, on the contrary it suits them to pass the time more indolently than as regards their bodies; for children before birth are evidently affected by the mother just as growing plants are by the earth. As to exposing or rearing of the children born, let there be a law that no deformed child shall be reared; but on the ground of number of children, if the regular customs hinder any of those born being exposed, there must be a limit fixed to the procreation of offspring, and if any people have a child as a result of intercourse in contravention of these regulations, abortion must be practised on it before it has developed sensation and life; for the line between lawful and unlawful abortion will be marked by the fact of having sensation and being alive. And since the beginning of the fit age for a man and for a woman, at which they are to begin their union, has been defined, let it also be decided for how long a time it is suitable for them to serve the state in the matter of producing children. For the offspring of too elderly parents, as those of too young ones, are born imperfect both in body and mind, and the children of those that have arrived at old age are weaklings. Therefore the period must be limited to correspond with the mental prime; and this in the case of most men is the age stated by some of the poets, who measure men’s age by periods of seven years,—it is about the age of fifty. Therefore persons exceeding this age by four or five years must be discharged from the duty of producing children for the community, and for the rest of their lives if they have intercourse it must be manifestly for the sake of health or for some other similar reason.
  • Memoria teneo Milesiam quandam mulierem, cum essem in Asia, quod ab heredibus secundis accepta pecunia partum sibi ipsa medicamentis abegisset, rei capitalis esse damnatam; nec iniuria quae spem parentis, memoriam nominis, subsidium generis, heredem familiae, designatum rei publicae civem sustulisset. quanto est Oppianicus in eadem iniuria maiore supplicio dignus! si quidem illa, cum suo corpori vim attulisset, se ipsa cruciavit, hic autem idem illud effecit per alieni corporis mortem atque cruciatum. ceteri non videntur in singulis hominibus multa parricidia suscipere posse, Oppianicus inventus est qui in uno corpore pluris necaret.
    • I remember a case which occurred when I was in Asia: how a certain woman of Miletus, who had accepted a bribe from the alternative heirs and procured her own abortion by drugs, was condemned to death: and rightly, for she had cheated the father of his hopes, his name of continuity, his family of its support, his house of an heir, and the Republic of a citizen-to-be. How much more severely did the same crime deserve to be punished in Oppianicus; for she in doing violence to her body brought pain upon herself, but he produced the same result as she by the painful death of another. Most men seem unequal to the task of murdering a succession of victims one at a time: Oppianicus came as a discovery—the murderer, in a single victim, of more than one person.
    • Cicero, Pro Cluentio (69 BC), 32 (tr. H. G. Hodge)
  • Dum labefactat onus gravidi temeraria ventris,
      In dubio vitae lassa Corinna iacet.
    • Corinna, rashly seeking to rid her heavy bosom of its load, lies languishing in peril of life.
    • Ovid, Amores (after 16 BC), II, xiii, 1–2 (tr. Grant Showerman)
  • Si tamen in tanto fas est monuisse timore,
      Hac tibi sit pugna dimicuisse satis!
    • And you—if it be right amid such fear still to utter warning—see that this battle be the end of such strife for you!
    • Ovid, Amores (after 16 BC), II, xiii, 27–28 (tr. Grant Showerman)
  • Quid iuvat inmunes belli cessare puellas,
      Nec fera peltatas agmina velle sequi,
    Si sine Marzte suis patiuntur vulnera telis,
      Et caecas armant in sua fata manus?
    Quae prima instituit teneros convellere fetus,
      Militia fuerat digna perire sua.
    • Of what avail to fair woman to rest free from the burdens of war, nor choose with shield in arm to march in the fierce array, if, free from peril of battle, she suffer wounds from weapons of her own, and arm her unforeseeing hands to her own undoing? She who first plucked forth the tender life deserved to die in the warfare she began.
    • Ovid, Amores (after 16 BC), II, xiv, 1–6 (tr. Grant Showerman)
    • Compare: Euripides, Medea, 250–251: [...] ὡς τρὶς ἂν παρ᾿ ἀσπίδα / στῆναι θέλοιμ᾿ ἂν μᾶλλον ἢ τεκεῖν ἅπαξ—"Sooner would I stand / Three times to face their battles, shield in hand, / Than bear one child." (tr. Gilbert Murray)
  • Si Venus Aenean gravida temerasset in alvo,
      Caesaribus tellus orba futura fuit.
    Tu quoque, cum posses nasci formosa, perisses,
      Temptasset, quod tu, si tua mater opus;
    Ipse ego, cum fuerim melius periturus amando,
      Idissem nullos matre necante dies.
    • Had Venus laid rash hand to Aeneas in her heavy womb, the world to come would have been orphaned of its Caesars. You, too, though you were to be born fair, would have perished had your mother tried what you have tried; and I myself, though a death through love was to be my better fate, would never have seen the day had my mother slain me.
    • Ovid, Amores (after 16 BC), II, xiv, 17–20 (tr. Grant Showerman)
  • Di faciles, peccasse semel concedite tuto,
      Et satis est; poenam culpa secunda ferat!
    • Ye gods of mercy, grant she has sinned this once in safety, 'tis all I ask; for a second fault, let her bear her punishment!
    • Ovid, Amores (after 16 BC), II, xiv, 43–44 (tr. Grant Showerman)
  • Partus antequam edatur, mulieris portio vel viscerum est.
    • The child is a part of the woman, or of her entrails, before it is born.
    • Ulpian (3rd century AD), in Digesta, XXV, iv, 1, 1 (tr. S. P. Scott)
  • The Divine Severus and Antoninus stated in a Rescript that a woman who purposely produces an abortion on herself should be sentenced to temporary exile by the Governor; for it may be considered dishonorable for a woman to deprive her husband of children with impunity.
  • If it should be proved that a woman has employed force upon her abdomen for the purpose of producing abortion, the Governor of the province shall send her into exile.
  • Those who administer a beverage for the purpose of producing abortion, or of causing affection, although they may not do so with malicious intent, still, because the act offers a bad example, shall, if of humble rank, be sent to the mines; or, if higher in degree, shall be relegated to an island, with the loss of a portion of their property. If a man or a woman should lose his or her life through such an act, the guilty party shall undergo the extreme penalty.
  • Cicero, in his oration for Cluentius Avitus, said that when he was in Asia, a certain Milesian woman, having received money from certain substituted heirs, produced an abortion on herself, by means of drugs, and was sentenced to death. If, however, any woman, after a divorce, should commit a violent act upon her viscera, for the reason that she was pregnant and did not wish to bear a son to her husband, whom she hated, she ought to be punished by temporary exile; as was stated by our most excellent Emperors in a Rescript.
  • But sometimes by a cruel necessity, whilst yet in the womb, an infant is put to death, when lying awry in the orifice of the womb he impedes parturition, and kills his mother, if he is not to die himself. Accordingly, among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely-adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all, and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade,1676 by means of which the limbs within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire fœtus is extracted by a violent delivery. There is also (another instrument in the shape of) a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life: they give it, from its infanticide function, the name of ἐμβρυοσφάκτης, the slayer of the infant, which was of course alive.
  • And the hearers of Callistus being delighted with his tenets, continue with him, thus mocking both themselves as well as many others, and crowds of these dupes stream together into his school. Wherefore also his pupils are multiplied, and they plume themselves upon the crowds (attending the school) for the sake of pleasures which Christ did not permit. But in contempt of Him, they place restraint on the commission of no sin, alleging that they pardon those who acquiesce (in Callistus’ opinions). For even also he permitted females, if they were unwedded, and burned with passion at an age at all events unbecoming, or if they were not disposed to overturn their own dignity through a legal marriage, that they might have whomsoever they would choose as a bedfellow, whether a slave or free, and that a woman, though not legally married, might consider such a companion as a husband. Whence women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility, and to gird themselves round, so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time! And withal, after such audacious acts, they, lost to all shame, attempt to call themselves a Catholic Church!
  • Observe, O man, and see whether the dog goes after the bitch after she has conceived. Look at the cow or certainly at the mare, and notice whether the bulls or stallions bother them after they are with young. Obviously, they forego the pleasure of intercourse when they sense that they are unable to produce offspring. Therefore, since bulls and dogs and other kinds of animal show such regard for their young, it is men alone, whose teacher was born of the Virgin, who have no fear of destroying and killing their little ones, made in the image of God, just so that they can satisfy their lust. This is the reason why many women practice abortion before their term is complete, or certainly why they discover means of mutilating or damaging the tiny and still fragile limbs of these little ones. And thus, as they are impelled by their incentives to lust, they are first murderers before they become parents.
    • Peter Damian (11th century), Letter 96 (tr. Owen J. Blum)
    • Owen J. Blum, ed. Fathers of the Church: Medieval Continuation, Vol. 5: The Letters of Peter Damian, 91–120 (Catholic University of America Press, 1998), pp. 62–63: “Here we have one of the few references, perhaps the only explicit one, in Damian's letters, to the practices of abortion. And to the horror of post-modern feminists he puts the blame on ‘the many women who practice abortion,’ charging them ‘with being murderers before they became parents.’ This discussion and its context are important evidence from the Central Middle Ages, reflecting the constant opposition of the Church to abortion from the Council of Elvira (ca. 302) to the present.”
  • O thou, whose eyes were closed in death’s pale night,
    Ere fate revealed thee to my aching sight;
    Ambiguous something, by no standard fixed,
    Frail span, of naught and of existence mixed;
    Embryo, imperfect as my tort’ring thought,
    Sad outcast of existence and of naught;
    Thou, who to guilty love first ow’st thy frame,
    Whom guilty honour kills to hide its shame;
    Dire offspring! formed by love’s too pleasing pow’r!
    Honour’s dire victim in a luckless hour!
    Soften the pangs that still revenge thy doom:
    Nor, from the dark abyss of nature’s womb,
    Where back I cast thee, let revolving time
    Call up past scenes to aggravate my crime.
      Two adverse tyrants ruled thy wayward fate,
    Thyself a helpless victim to their hate;
    Love, spite of honour’s dictates, gave thee breath;
    Honour, in spite of love, pronounced thy death.
  • With consistency, beautiful and undeviating, human life, from its commencement to its close, is protected by the common law. In the contemplation of law, life begins when the infant is first able to stir in the womb. By the law, life is protected not only from immediate destruction, but from every degree of actual violence, and, in some cases, from every degree of danger.
    • James Wilson, a leading framer of the U.S. Constitution, Of the Natural Rights of Individuals (1790)
  • Women...sacrificing to lasciviousness the parental affection...either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast if off when born. Nature in every thing demands respect, and those who violate her laws seldom violate them with impunity.
  • [This] subject lies deeper down in woman’s wrongs than any other...I hesitate not to assert that most of (the responsibility for) this crime lies at the door of the male sex.
    • Matilda Gage, early feminist, in The Revolution (9 April 1868).
  • Infanticide is on the increase to an extent inconceivable. Nor is it confined to the cities by any means. Androscoggin County in Maine is largely a rural district, but a recent Medical Convention there unfolded a fearful condition of society in relation to this subject. Dr. Oaks made the remark that, according to the best estimate he could make, there were four hundred murders annually produced by abortion in that county alone....There must be a remedy for such a crying evil as this. But where shall it be found, at least where begin, if not in the complete enfranchisement and elevation of woman? Forced maternity, not out of legal marriage but within it, must lie at the bottom of a vast proportion of such revolting outrages against the laws of nature and our common humanity.
  • All the articles on this subject that I have read have been from men. They denounce women as alone guilty, and never include man in any plans for the remedy. . . Guilty? Yes. No matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed [abortion]. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; But oh, thrice guilty is he who drove her to the desperation which impelled her to the crime! ...We want prevention, not merely punishment. We must reach the root of the evil [abortion]...It is practiced by those whose inmost souls revolt from the dreadful deed.
  • When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society. So when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged.
    • Mattie Brinkerhoff, women's suffrage movement leader, in The Revolution (2 September 1869)
  • Child murderers practice their profession without let or hindrance, and open infant butcheries unquestioned...Is there no remedy for all this ante-natal child murder?...Perhaps there will come a time when...an unmarried mother will not be despised because of her motherhood...and when the right of the unborn to be born will not be denied or interfered with.
  • The rights of children as individuals begin while yet they remain the foetus.
    • Victoria Woodhull, first woman to run for U.S. President, member of the Equal Rights Party, in Woodhull's and Claffin's Weekly (24 December 1870)
  • Abortion is also a practice which spreads damnation world-wide. . . When a woman becomes conscious that she is pregnant, and a desire comes up in her heart to shirk the duties it involves, that moment the fetal life is the unloved, the unwished child. Is it to be wondered at that there are so many undutiful children--so many who instinctively feel that they are "encumbrances" rather than the beautiful necessities of the home? What true mother's heart but bounds with pride and joy when she sees the beauteous results of her constructive work? Why should she not also feel happiness when she realizes that she is performing that constructive process? Is it to be wondered at that so many children lacking all confidence in themselves and so foolishly diffident that it follows them through life, when we consider the conduct of women during pregnancy? It should be the pride of every woman to be the willing, the anxious, the contented mother, and if she be so under the guidance of the knowledge we deem essential, she will never have cause to regret that she fulfilled the duties of maternity. All practices which degenerate the character of children should be discountenanced by every humanitarian, and women encouraged to wisely and perfectly mold and fashion the life which they shall give to the world.
    • Victoria Woodhull, first woman to run for U.S. President, member of the Equal Rights Party, in a speech to the American Association of Spiritualists (13 September 1871)
  • I wish to say my word on the theme of the day — Abortion and the Abortionists. . . Abortion [is]one of the fixed institutions of the country, one of the marked characteristics of the age, one of the indicative symptoms of the ripening and the rottening of our prevalent state of society! Who proposes to disturb Madame Restel [underground abortion practitioner]? Who really wants that there should be no opportunity to secure an abortion under peculiarly trying circumstances? . . . But the great revenue of these practitioners is from the married women among the wealthy. They have become unfit to have children, and abortion is the sewerage for this wretched stagnation of feminine life. . . . Abortion before marriage and especially after marriage are the rule rather than the exception—in the wealthy and fashionable classes, and to a great extent among workingwomen who say they 'can’t afford to have children'. . . Abortion is only a symptom of a more deep-seated disorder of the social state. It cannot be put down by law. Normally the mother of ten children is as healthy, and may be as youthful and beautiful, as a healthy maiden. Child-bearing is not a disease, but a beautiful office of nature. But to our faded-out, sickly, exhausted type of women, it is a fearful ordeal. Nearly every child born is an unwelcome guest. Abortion is the choice of evils for such women.
    • Victoria Woodhull, first woman to run for U.S. President, member of the Equal Rights Party, in Woodhull's and Claffin's Weekly (23 September 1871)
  • Whoever has read the Weekly knows I hold abortion (except to save the life of the mother) to be just as much murder as the killing of a person after birth is murder.
    • Victoria Woodhull, first woman to run for U.S. President, member of the Equal Rights Party, in Woodhull's and Claffin's Weekly (2 December 1871)
  • We are aware that many women attempt to excuse themselves for procuring abortions, upon the ground that it is not murder. But the fact of resort to so weak an argument only shows the more palpably that they fully realize the enormity of the crime. Is it not equally destroying the would-be future oak to crush the sprout before it pushes its head above the sod, as to cut down the sapling, or cut down the tree? Is it not equally to destroy life, to crush it in the very germ, and to take it when the germ has evolved to any given point in its line of development?
    • Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly (20 June 1874)
  • Men must no longer insult all womanhood by saying that freedom means the degradation of woman. Every woman knows if she were free, she would never bear an unwished-for child, nor think of murdering one before its birth.
    • Victoria Woodhull, first woman to run for U.S. President, member of the Equal Rights Party, in The Evening Standard (Wheeling, WV; 17 November 1875)
  • We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, in this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.
    • From the majority decision in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. (1973)

From secondary sources

  • Methods to terminate an unwanted or unintended pregnancy are known to have existed since ancient times. As far back as 5000 years ago, the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung described the use of mercury for inducing abortion. A recent publication lists over 100 traditional methods of inducing abortion, which can be broadly classified into four categories: (1) oral and injectable medicines; (2) vaginal preparations; (3) introduction of a foreign body into the uterus; and (4) trauma to the abdomen. Many of these methods pose serious threats to the woman’s life and well-being.
  • A drug, herb or other chemical agent that dilated the cervix and/or causes the uterus to contract, resulting in the ending of a pregnancy before the fetus can survive on its own. Plants of various kinds have been used for this purpose since ancient times. Among the most effective for cervical dilation is LAMINARIA, a marine plant whose stem gradually expands when it is moist. Dried laminaria, when inserted into the cervix causes it to open and, over a period of hours, gradually stretches the cervical canal. It does not however, induce uterine contractions.
    A number of herbs are said to be EMMENAGOGUES, that is, they allegedly induce menstruation delayed by illness or emotional stress, and sometimes also by pregnancy. As abortifacients they supposedly work best when taken very soon after conception, even before the next menstrual period is due and generally they must be brewed to a fairly concentrated strength. When effective, they then induce abdominal cramps and uterine contractions, ending in abortion. This procedure also tends to be accompanied by pain, vomiting and diarrhea; indeed, some herbalists warn that an herb-induced abortion is more traumatic than a medical procedure performed in early pregnancy such as VACUUM ASPIRATION. Further, some vegetable compounds so used are toxic in large doses, and the oil of at least two plants, pennyroyal (or squawmint Mentha pulegium) and Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), has cause a number of deaths. Among the herbs said to be effective abortifacients are blue cohosh or squaw root (Caulophyllum thalicroides), common rue (Ruta graveolens), black cohosh or black snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa) and tansy (Chrysanthemum or Tanectum vulgare). The last two are toxic in large doses, and black cohosh should be avoided if a woman has low blood pressure. An abortifacient long used in the American Deep South is cotton bark (Gossypium herbaceum), which brings on uterine contractions when chewed. The cotton tree often is a host to ERGOT, a parasitic fungus whose derivatives have long been used in childbirth under medical supervision to strengthen uterine contractions.
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