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Everyone who sees cries, “Serves her right!” (and other tales of ancient abortion)

September 2, 2011

Lizards drowned in wine. White lead. Touching heels to buttocks. Iron slag. Cold drinks. Potter’s clay. Wine. Asparagus necklaces. Herbs. A cat’s liver worn around the left ankle. Cedar gum. Jumping up and down.

All of these were contraceptive methods employed in the ancient world. This list, while hardly exhaustive, perhaps goes some way to explaining the widespread discussion of the legality, ethics and methods of abortion in the ancient world. Abortion was widely acknowledged, discussed and (as far as we can tell) employed, but it was far from unproblematic. Philosophers and physicians debated whether the foetus should be considered human, or at what point it became one, and at what point and in what circumstances after birth it became problematic to expose an infant [ie. abandon it and leave it to die, a common practice in the ancient world].

The Stoics – the dominant philosophical school amongst the Roman elite – claimed that a foetus resembled a plant, and that it could only be considered an animal once it had been born and began to breathe. Plato echoed this view, claiming that humanity began with breath, and in the ideal society that he lays out in “The Republic”, the population is in part controlled by eugenic abortion. The Digest of Justinian, a Roman legal code, stated that the act of abortion in itself could not be considered criminal as the foetus was not an independent person. Aristotle, in debating the issue, noted:

“on the grounds of an excess in the number of children, if the established customs of the state forbid this (for in our state population has a limit), no child is to be exposed, but when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation.”

“Before sense and life has begun” was generally considered to be 40 days – a definition which carried on well into even the Christian period as the idea of a point of ‘ensoulment’. Aristotle himself suggested that male fetuses became human at around 40 days, and female ones at around 90.

It is an often-repeated ‘fact’ that the Hippocratic Oath explicitly banned administering abortions:

“Neither will I give a woman means to procure an abortion.”

However, the oath in fact only refers to administering abortifacient pessaries. A possible reason for this prohibition might well be found in the long descriptions of medical procedures for dealing with the internal harm caused by many such pessaries in the Hippocratic corpus. Oral or surgical solutions seem to have been preferred.

The physician Soranus distinguished deliberate from spontaneous abortion, and abortion from contraception (although in more popular literature there seems to be little distinction between contraception and early abortion). He only accepted abortion if a woman’s life was in danger, but detailed a variety of methods, including jumping, riding, carrying heavy objects, diuretics, hot baths and special “abortion wine” during the first months, and bleeding and pessaries subsequently. The physicians Galen and Dioscorides mention many plant products used either orally or vaginally to provoke abortions, in addition to surgical methods, but like Soranus, they have strong reservations about performing any of the procedures that they detail. The church father Tertullian, while railing against abortion, gives a description of the surgical implements employed in what sounds remarkably like a modern D&C:

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, 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 fetus is extracted..

However, in an age before an understanding of sanitation, such surgical abortions were almost certainly extremely risky. The naturalist Pliny lists abortifacient draughts, alongside poisons, as ‘women’s things’ which he will not discuss, highlighting a pervasive association in the ancient world between women and poison.

As the lumping together of women, abortion and poison might suggest, the general characterisation of women in the ancient world with regard to abortion was not in any way a positive one. Women terminating their pregnancies were generally characterised as at best vain and selfish. The philosopher Favorinus claimed that:

“[there are women] who strive by evil devices to cause abortion of the fetus itself which they have conceived, in order that their beauty may not be spoiled by the weight of the burden they bear and by the labour of parturition.” 

The poet Ovid dedicates an entire poem to haranguing his mistress as she lies ill after a botched abortion:

What good does it do for girls to be exempt from combat, freed
     from all the dangers that our soldiers face,
if they will suffer self-inflicted wounds far from the front lines,
     and blindly brandish arms against their own
bodies? The woman who first took aim at her helpless fetus
     should have died by her own javelin.
Can it be possible that, simply to avoid a few stretch-marks,
     you’d make your womb a bloody battleground?
What if our forebears had forborne to bear? Without willing mothers
     the world would be unpopulated – again
someone would have to seed the empty earth with flung stones.
     Priam’s palace wouldn’t have been sacked
if sea-goddess Thetis had refused to shoulder (so to speak) her load;
     if Ilia, her belly swollen big,
had terminated her twins in utero, who would have founded
     the City that was bound to rule the world?
If Venus, in her audacity, had aborted fetal Aeneas
     the Caesars never would have graced our land.
Even you (though you were meant to be born a beauty) would have died
     if your mother had attempted what you’ve tried.
I myself (though personally I plan to die of love) would not
     have seen the light of day, had mother killed me.
Let the swelling grapes grow sweet and purple on the vine,
     leave the unripe apple on the tree.
All things will come to fruition in their season; let grow
     what has been planted; a life is worth the wait.
How can you pierce your own flesh with weapons, feed deadly toxins
     to babies still unborn? The world condemns
the woman of Colchis, spattered with the blood of her young sons,
     and mourns for Procne’s victim, poor Itys.
Horrible mothers! But at least a kind of dreadful logic moved them
      to spill, from their sons’ throats, their husbands’ blood –
Tell me, in your case, where’s the Tereus or Jason that could compel you
     to move your outraged hand against yourself?
The fierce Armenian tigress in her lair, the savage lioness
     show more consideration for their young.
What wild animals won’t do, young ladies will – but often
     the girl who tries it kills herself as well.
She dies, and is carried out to the pyre, her hair all loose,
     and everyone who sees cries, “Serves her right!”
What am I saying? Let my words be carried off by the winds,
     let all ill omens vanish – let her live,
benevolent gods, let just this one sin go unpunished – but
     let her have it, if she tries again.

Aside from the fact that rhetoric in this area has not greatly changed in the last 2,000 years, the characterisation of women as very much at fault with regard to abortion is made clear.

In the legal sphere, abortion does appear as a potentially criminal action, though not of the sort that certain types of American politician might advocate. Abortion within marriage, if not the wish of the father, is seen as a property crime, endangering the entire edifice of elite wealth transmission. The 4th century BC Athenian orator Lysias describes abortion as a crime against the father, detailing the case of a husband who took his wife to court for depriving him of an heir by abortion. The 1st century BC orator and politician Cicero refers to a case of a woman sentenced to death in Miletus (a city in the Greek Near East) for having aborted her pregnancy after being bribed by those who stood to inherit her husband’s estate if he died without an heir. In doing so she had

 “destroyed the hope of the father, the memory of his name, the supply of his race, the heir of his family, a citizen intended for the use of the republic.”

Legislation against abortion was first introduced in the 3rd century AD by the emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla, in which abortion was characterised as a crime against the father, punishable by temporary exile. According to Stoic philosophers like Musonius Rufus, abortion was problematic because of its repercussions against the family and against ‘nature’, but not against the foetus.

This emphasis on the father’s will goes some way to explaining why in many cases abortion seems to be considered more problematic than infanticide. In the Roman world, custom dictated that when a child was born it was placed on the floor before the father, who would either acknowledge it by picking it up or leave it, indicating that it should be exposed. In some cases, this practice aligned with the socially acceptable rationales for abortion: Plutarch, a Greek commentator on the Romans, rather chillingly noted in this respect that “the poor do not bring up children.” Tacitus, a Roman historian and ethnographer, remarked incredulously that the Jews did not practice infanticide, because they believed children to be immediately ensouled.

Pagan challenges specifically on religious grounds do not seem to been pronounced, at least in the recorded popular discourse that has survived to the modern day. Christian sources, however, generally expressed a vehement opposition to abortion. Tertullain claimed that

“the substance of both body and soul […] are conceived, and formed…perfectly simultaneously”

However, there does not seem to have been an initial consensus on this. St. Augustine adhered to the pagan understanding of conception, suggesting that the foetus did not gain a soul until 40 days gestation. St. Jerome, too, questioned the point at which a foetus became human, though he was strongly opposed to abortion as a general principle.

Clement of Alexandria, writing in the second century AD, employed rhetoric that would not seem out of place in modern ‘pro life’ literature:

Our whole life can go on in observation of the laws of nature, if we gain dominion over our desires from the beginning and if we do not kill, by various means of a perverse art, the human offspring, born according to the designs of divine providence; for these women who, in order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the matter completely dead, abort at the same time their human feelings.

The Christian lawyer Minucius Felix described abortion as infanticide committed before birth, illustrating how Christianity also adopted the Jewish prohibitions on infanticide that had so perplexed Tacitus, but with a much broader definition. A blanket prohibition on abortion and infanticide would come to be one of the hallmarks of Christian teaching about reproduction.

As with almost all areas in the study of the ancient world, we have no recorded women’s voices. Or voices from outside of a specific socio-economic class. Would a man further down in society have agreed with the characterisation of the poor with regard to family limitation? Would he have had the same views about how his wife or partner’s actions reflected upon him, given that he may have lacked the sort of resources that such legislation was designed to protect? What did women themselves make of abortion? Would Ovid’s mistress have agreed with his assumption that she only sought to avoid stretch marks? Or would she have recognised more complex motivations? Did the diversity of early Christianity include opinions different to those of the orthodoxy that later emerged? As with so many areas of ancient intimate life, we simply do not know.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2011 10:15 pm

    This is so so interesting. It’s really thought provoking to be shown that support for abortion flourished (and originated?) in a society with such deeply insulting and damaging views towards women, also shows how radical and sudden a departure the idea of the sanctity of all life must have been for the early church.

    I totally love this blofg. I did Classics for A-level (like AP, are you from the UK?) with an 7000 word essay on the presentation of the female in c.5th attic red figure vases, it was one of my proudest high school moments, but now I’m studying philosophy at university, so it’s great to keep learning about classical stuff here, keep it up!

    • September 4, 2011 2:19 pm

      Thanks 🙂 I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog! What were your conclusions about women on 5th century attic figure vases?

      I suppose the thing with abortion and attitudes towards women in the ancient world is that abortion wasn’t really considered to be intrinsically a ‘women’s issue’. Women rarely had a lot of control over their own reproduction anyway (there’s a rather chilling letter from Oxyrinchus with a husband away on business casually telling his wife that if she gives birth while he’s still away, she’s to expose their newborn if it’s a girl…) and aside from misogynist invective, a lot of the discussion of abortion does seem to link it much more to men, and to men’s property or poverty. St. Ambrose has a rather awful passage where he says: “The poor expose their children, the rich kill the fruit of their own bodies in the womb, lest their property be divided up…” It is a shame, though, that as with so many areas in the ancient world, we have no women’s voices – it would be fascinating to know what women thought about all this…especially in the 1st-3rd centuries AD, when so many attitudes were in flux!

  2. September 23, 2011 9:18 am

    I was very pleased to find your website.I wanted to thanks for your time for this nice article!!

    I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you blog post.

    Best regards Alex

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