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History of abortion

The '''history of abortion''' according to anthropologists dates back to ancient times There is evidence to suggest that historically pregnancy|pregnancies were terminated through a number of methods including the administration of abortifacient herbs the use of sharpened implements the application of abdominal pressure and other techniques

Medical: History of abortion procedures

Ancient period

A pregnant woman reclines while another works with a mortar and pestle
The first recorded evidence of induced abortion is from a Chinese document which records abortions performed upon royal concubines in China between the years 500 and 515 BC According to Chinese folklore the legendary Emperor Shennong prescribed the use of mercury to induce abortions nearly 5000 years ago
Hippocrates the Greek physician whose famous Oath forbids abortion nonetheless writes of having advised a dancer and prostitute who fell pregnant to jump up and down touching her buttocks with her heels at each leap so as to induce miscarriage Other writings attributed to him describe instruments fashioned to dilate the cervix and curette inside of the uterus which he used perform an abortion upon one of his patients
Soranus a 2nd century Greek physician provided some rather detailed suggestions in his work Gynecology He recommended that women wishing to abort their pregnancies should engage in violent exercise energetic jumping carrying heavy objects and riding animals Diuretics emmenagogues enemas fasting and bloodletting were also prescribed although Soranus advised against the use of sharp instruments to induce miscarriage due to the risk of organ perforation He also listed a number of recipes for herbal bathes rubs and pessaries
Other botanical preparations are refered to as possessing abortive qualities in classical literature In De Materia Medica Libri Quinque the Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides describes something called "abortion wine" He listed the ingredients to the concotion but failed to provide the precise manner in which it was to be prepared Pliny the Elder cited the refined oil of common rue as a potent abortifacient
It is known that the ancient Greeks relied upon the herb silphium as both a contraceptive and an abortifacient The plant as the chief export of Cyrene was driven to extinction but it is suggested that it might have possessed the same abortive properties as some of its closest extant relatives in the Apiaceae family Cyrenian coins were embossed with an image of the plant
Such folk remedies however varied in effectiveness and were not without risk Tansy and pennyroyal for example are two poisonous herbs with serious side effects that have at times been used to terminate pregnancy
The technique of massage abortion involving the application of pressure to the pregnant abdomen has been practiced in Southeast Asia for centuries One of the bas reliefs decorating the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia dated circa 1150 depicts a demon performing such an abortion upon a woman who has been sent to the underworld This is believed to be the oldest known visual representation of abortion

Recent period

Nineteenth century medicine saw advances in the fields of surgery anaesthesia and sanitation in the same era that doctors with the American Medical Association lobbied for bans on abortion in the United States and the British Parliament passed the Offences Against the Person Act
Access to abortion continued however as the disguised but nonetheless open advertisement of abortion services in the Victorian era would seem to suggest A few alleged examples of such surreptitiously-marketed abortifacients include "Farrer's Catholic Pills" "Hardy's Woman's Friend" "Dr Peter's French Renovating Pills" and "Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound" Patent medicines which claimed to treat "female complaints" often contained such ingredients as pennyroyal tansy and savin
During the fight for History of women's in the United States|women's suffrage in the US] some notable first-wave feminists such as Susan B. Anthony Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mary Wollstonecraft held pro-life views
The 20th century saw improvements in abortion technology increasing its safety and reducing its side-effects including the invention of drugs such as Mifepristone (RU486) which induce abortion by changing hormone levels

Legal: History of abortion law

The history of abortion law dates back to ancient times and has impacted men and women in a variety of ways in different times and places Historically it is unclear how often the ethics of abortion (induced abortion) was discussed but under Christian influence the West generally frowned on abortion By the late 19th century many nations had passed laws that banned abortion In the later half of the 20th century some nations began to legalize abortion This controversial subject has sparked heated debate and in some cases even violence

Ancient (Prior to 476AD)

There is anthropological evidence that abortion has been practiced beginning in ancient times Some previous civilizations are thought to have tolerated even late-term abortions
There were also opposing voices most notably Hippocrates of Cos and the Roman Emperor Augustus In contrast to their pagan evironment Christians generally shunned abortion drawing upon the Bible and early Christian writings such as the Didache (circa 100 AD) which says: " thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill the infant already born" [1] Saint Augustine refers to Exodus when he says that abortion is murder:
  • "And if men strive together and hurt a pregnant woman so that her fruit [2] come out and yet no harm follows; the one who hit her shall surely be fined according as the woman’s husband shall impose upon him; and he shall pay a fine as the judges determine But if any harm follows then you shall pay life for life eye for eye tooth for tooth" (Bible Exodus 21:22-23)

  • "The fetus in the womb is . . . an object of God's care" and "We say that women who induce abortions are murderers and will have to give account of it to God" (Athenagoras late 2nd century)
  • "In our case murder being once for all forbidden we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb" (Tertullian late 2nd century)
  • "There are women who . . . [3] committing infanticide before they give birth to the infant" (Minucious Felix early 3rd century)
  • "Those . . . who give drugs causing abortion are murderers themselves as well as those receiving the poison which kills the fetus" (Basil 4th century)
  • "They drink potions to ensure sterility and are guilty of murdering a human being not yet conceived Some when they learn that they are with child through sin practice abortion by the use of drugs Frequently they die themselves and are brought before the rulers of the lower world guilty of three crimes: suicide adultery against Christ and murder of an unborn child" (Jerome 4th century)
  • "But who is not rather disposed to think that unformed fetuses perish like seeds which have not fructified ... And therefore the following question may be very carefully inquired into and discussed by learned men though I do not know whether it is in man's power to resolve it: At what time the infant begins to live in the womb: whether life exists in a latent form before it manifests itself in the motions of the living being To deny that the young who are cut out limb by limb from the womb lest if they were left there dead the mother should die too have never been alive seems too audacious Now from the time that a man begins to live from that time it is possible for him to die And if he die wheresoever death may overtake him I cannot discover on what principle he can be denied an interest in the resurrection of the dead" (Saint Augustine in Enchiridion early 5th century)


  • 1140 - The monk John Gratian completed the Concordia discordantium canonum (Harmony of Contradictory Laws) which became the first authoritative collection of canon law accepted by the church In accordance with ancient scholars it concluded the moral crime of early abortion was not equivalent to that of homicide
  • c. 1200 - Pope Innocent III wrote that when "quickening" occurred abortion was homicide Before that abortion was considered a less serious sin
  • 1307–1803 - According to English common law abortion prior to fetal movement or "quickening" was not punished
  • c 1395 - The Lollards an English proto-Protestant group denounce the practice of abortion in The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards
  • 1588 - Pope Sixtus V aligned church policy with St Thomas Aquinas' belief that contraception and abortion were crimes against nature and sins against marriage
  • 1591 - Pope Gregory XIV decreed that prior to 116 days (~17 weeks) church penalties would not be any stricter than local penalties which varied from country to country
  • 1861 - The British Parliament passes the Offences Against The Person Act which outlaws abortion
  • 1869 - Pope Pius IX declared that abortion under any circumstance was gravely immoral and that anyone who participated in an abortion in any material way had by virtue of that act separated themselves from the church (excommunicated themselves)
  • 1820–1900 - In the largely protestant US through the efforts primarily of physicians in the American Medical Association and legislators most abortions in the US were outlawed


  • 1920 - Lenin legalized all abortions in the Soviet Union
  • 1935 - Iceland became the first Western country to legalize therapeutic abortion under limited circumstances
  • 1936 - Joseph Stalin reversed Lenin's legalization of abortion in the Soviet Union to increase population growth
  • In 1936 Heinrich Himmler Chief of the SS, created the "Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion"
  • 1938 - In Britain Dr Alec Bourne aborted the pregnancy of a young girl who had been raped by soldiers Bourne was acquitted after turning himself into authorities The legal precedent of allowing abortion in order to avoid mental or physical damage was picked up by the Commonwealth of Nations
  • 1938 - Abortion is legalized on a limited basis in Sweden
  • 1967–1969 - Britain (1967) and Canada (1969) legalized abortion in extremely limited circumstances California and Colorado (1967) become the first US states to legalize abortion
  • 1969 - the ruling in the Victorian case of R v Davidson defines for the first time which abortions are lawful in Australia
  • 1969–1973 - The Jane Collective operates in Chicago offering illegal abortions
  • 1970 - New (state)|New York] legalizes abortion to much opposition primarily from African-American activists
  • 1971 - Lorraine Rothman invents the Del-Em a safe cheap suction device for early abortions
  • 1973 - The US Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade declares all the individual state bans on abortion to be unconstitutional effectively legalizing abortion and superseding the authority of local elected legislatures
  • 1973–1980 - France (1975) West Germany (1976) New Zealand (1977) Italy (1978) and the Netherlands (1980) legalized abortion in limited circumstances
  • 1979 - People's Republic of China enacts its one-child policy making some women have to choose to undergo an abortion rather than violate the policy
  • 1983 - Ireland by popular referendum amends its Constitution to recognize "the right to life of the unborn"
  • 1988 - France legalizes the "abortion pill" mifepristone (RU 486)
  • 1993 - Poland banned abortion in most cases except in cases of rape incest severe birth defects or a threat to the life of the mother
  • 1999 - In the US Congress passes a ban on partial-birth abortion which President Bill Clinton vetoes
  • 2003 - The US enacts a federal ban on partial-birth abortion signed into law by President George W. Bush The law is found unconstitutional by three appeals courts to be reviewed by the Supreme Court in 2006

See also


History of abortion procedures
  1. Glenc F. (1974) Induced abortion - a historical outline Polski Tygodnik Lekarski 29 (45) 1957-8
  2. Christopher Tietze and Sarah Lewit "Abortion" Scientific American 220 (1969) 21
  3. Lefkowitz Mary R. & Fant Maureen R. (1992) Women's life in Greece & : a source book in translation Baltimore MD: John Hopkins University Press Retrieved January 11 2006
  4. Contraception and Abortion in the Ancient Classical World (1997) Ancient Roman Technology Retrieved March 16 2006 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill website
  5. Klotz John W. (1973) A Historical Summary of Abortion from Antiquity through Legalization (1973) A Christian View of Abortion St. Louis Missouri: Concordia Publishing House Retrieved March 16 2006
  6. Potts Malcolm & Campbell Martha (2002) History of contraception Gynecology and Obstetrics vol 6, ch. 8
  7. Dyer Frederick N. (1999) Pro-Life-Physician Horatio Robinson Storer: Your Ancestors and You Retrieved March 11 2006
  8. Histories of Abortion (nd) Retrieved January 11 2006
  9. Black Barbara (2000 November 27) Women win back reproductive rights North Shore News Retrieved March 16 2006
  10. O'Beirne Kate (2005 January 8). " America's Earliest Feminists Opposed Abortion" Chicago Sun-Times Retrieved March 16 2006
History of abortion law
  1. Critchlow Donald T. The Politics of Abortion and Birth Control in Historical Perspective (1996)
  2. Critchlow Donald T. Intended Consequences: Birth Control Abortion and the Federal Government in Modern America (2001)
  3. Garrow David J. Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe V. Wade (1998)
  4. Hull NEH Roe V. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History (2001) Legal history
  5. Mohr James C. Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy 1800-1900 (1979)
  6. Staggenborg Suzanne The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the Abortion Conflict (1994)
  7. Rubin Eva R. ed. The Abortion : A Documentary History (1994)
  8. Hull NEH The Abortion Rights Controversy in America: A Legal Reader (2004)
  9. Text of the Roe v Wade decision from Findlaw
  10. Roe v. Wade 410 US 113 (1973) (full text with links to cited material)

External links