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Abortion, the purposeful termination of a pregnancy, is often presented as if it were a new, cutting-edge, scientific product of the modern era, when it is, in fact, as old as recorded history.
Earliest Known Description of Abortion
Although contraception are older, the earliest known description of abortion comes from the ancient Egyptian medical text known as the Ebers Papyrus. This document, written about 1550 BCE, and credibly from records dating as far back as the third millennium BCE, suggests that an abortion can be induced with the use of a plant-fiber tampon coated with a compound that included honey and crushed dates. Later herbal abortifacients-substances used to promote abortions-included the long-extinct silphium, the most prized medicinal plant of the ancient world, and pennyroyal, which is still sometimes used to induce abortions (but not safely, as it is highly toxic). In Lysistrata, a satire written by the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes (460-380 BCE), the character Calonice describes a young woman as "well-cropped, and trimmed, and spruced with pennyroyal."
Abortion is never explicitly mentioned in any book of the Judeo-Christian Bible, but we do know that the ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Romans, among others, would have practiced it during their respective eras. The absence of any discussion of abortion in the Bible is conspicuous, and later authorities attempted to close the gap. Niddah 23a, a chapter of the Babylonian Talmud and probably written in the 4th century BCE, includes commentary from the later Talmudic scholars about abortion as determining whether a woman in "unclean." The discussion would likely have been consistent with contemporaneous secular sources permitting abortion during early pregnancy: "A woman can only abort something in the shape of a stone, and that can only be described as a lump."
Early Christian (ca 3rd century CE) writers allude to contraceptives and abortifacients generally disapprovingly, prohibiting abortion within the context condemning theft, covetousness, perjury, hypocrisy, and pride. Abortion is never mentioned in the Qur'an, and later Muslim scholars hold a range of views regarding the morality of the practice--some holding that it is always unacceptable, others holding that it is acceptable up to the 16th week of pregnancy.
Earliest Legal Ban on Abortion
The earliest legal ban on abortion dates from the Assyrian 11th-century BCE Code of Assura, a harsh set of laws restricting women in general. It imposes the death penalty on married women who procure abortions-without the permission of their husbands. We know that some regions of ancient Greece also had some sort of ban on abortion, because there are fragments of speeches from the ancient Greek lawyer-orator Lysias (445-380 BCE) in which he defends a woman accused of having an abortion. But, much like the Code of Assura, it may have only applied in cases where the husband had not granted permission for the pregnancy to be terminated.
The 5th century BCE Hippocratic Oath forbade physicians from inducing elective abortions (requiring that physicians vow "not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion"). The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) held that abortion was ethical if performed during the first trimester of pregnancy, writing in the Historia Animalium that there is a distinctive change that takes place early in the second trimester:
About this period (the ninetieth day) the embryo begins to resolve into distinct parts, it having hitherto consisted of a fleshlike substance without distinction of parts. What is called effluxion is a destruction of the embryo within the first week, while abortion occurs up to the fortieth day; and the greater number of such embryos as perish do so within the space of these forty days.
As far as we know, surgical abortion was not common until the end of the 19th century and would have been reckless prior to the invention of the Hegar dilator in 1879, which made dilation-and-curettage (D&C) possible. But pharmaceutically-induced abortions, different in function and similar in effect, were extremely common in the ancient world.
Sources and Further Reading
- Arkenberg, J. S. "The Code of the Assura, c. 1075 BCE: Excerpts from the Code of the Assyrians." Ancient History Sourcebook. Fordham University, 1998.
- Epstein, Isidore. (trans.). "Contents of the Soncino Babylonian Talmud." London: Soncino Press, Come and Hear, 1918.
- Gorman, Michael J. "Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World." Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1982
- Mulder, Tara. "The Hippocratic Oath in Roe v. Wade." Eidolon, March 10, 2016.
- Riddle, John M. "Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance." Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.