Ancient Abortion History
A look at the methods and perceived morality of abortion in the ancient world.
While the attitudes toward abortion widely varied in the Ancient world, the historical evidence strongly suggests that abortion and infanticide were common practices. Below is a collection of written testimony to ancient views and methods of abortion from ancient Greek and Roman writers. Click on the links to read the quotations in their context.
Abortion is not a modern phenomenon. Surviving texts from the ancient Greco-Roman world reveal that ancient people were well-acquainted with abortion. It was discussed by doctors, philosophers, lawyers, historians, and poets. Some found the practice to be good and necessary. Others found the practice to be evil and contrary to nature. Those who promoted abortion had a variety of reasons: to prevent unwanted children, to reduce the number "weaker" children, to hide sexual activity, to prevent bodily disfigurement, to reduce the number of heirs, to avoid the expenses and burdens of child-rearing, etc. Those who sought abortions generally had two options: abortifacient drugs or crude surgery. Neither method was particularly safe. Those who condemned abortion often did so to protect the rights of the father and to spare a women from almost certain physical harm, even death. Occasionally, abortion was condemned based on the belief that what grows in the womb is a human being. The selections below contain ancient testimony to the ethics, frequency, and methods of abortion.
Abortion in Ancient Greece
Hippocrates (460-357 B.C.)
The Oath of Hippocrates (400 B.C.): “I swear by Apollo the physician, and Aesculapius, and Health, and All-heal, and all the gods and goddesses, that, according to my ability and judgment, I will keep this Oath. . . I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion.” The Oath gives evidence that the medical profession found certain abortion procedures to be wrong. However this may only be because certain procedures were dangerous and potentially deadly for the woman, while little concern was given to the fetus. Another text by Hippocrates (or possibly someone using his name as pseudonym) from “On the Generating Seed and the Nature of the Child” evidences that at times abortion could be promoted: “It was in the following way that I came to see a six-day-old embryo. A kinswomen of mine owned a very valuable danseuse, whom she employed as a prostitute. It was important that this girl should not become pregnant and therefore lose her value. Now this girl had heard the sort of thing women say to each other – that when a woman is going to conceive, the seed remains inside her and does not fall out. She digested this information, and kept a watch. One day she noticed that the seed had not come out again. She told her mistress and the story came to me. When I heard it, I told her to jump up and down, touching her buttocks with her heels at each leap. After she had done this more than seven times, there was a noise, the seed fell out on the ground, and the girl looked at in great surprise... It was round, and red, and within the membrane could be seen thick white fibres, surrounded by a thick red serum; while on the outer surface of the membrane were clots of blood."
Aphorisms, Section V, Part 31: "If a woman with child be bled, she will have an abortion, and this will be more likely to happen, the larger the foetus."
Plato (427-345 B.C.)
In his Republic, written around 360 B.C., Plato records a fictional conversation between Socrates and various others about what constitutes justice and it is argued that justice occurs when a person does what he does best for the interests of the State. In Book V, in a discussion about women and childbearing, Socrates recommends a kind of eugenics where certain fetuses should not be allowed to be born or should be killed after birth: “…the principle has been already laid down that the best of either sex should be united with the best as often, and the inferior with the inferior, as seldom as possible; and that they should rear the offspring of the one sort of union, but not of the other, if the flock is to be maintained in first-rate condition…And I think that our braver and better youth, besides their other honours and rewards, might have greater facilities of intercourse with women given them; their bravery will be a reason, and such fathers ought to have as many sons as possible… A woman, I said, at twenty years of age may begin to bear children to the State, and continue to bear them until forty; a man may begin at five-and-twenty, when he has passed the point at which the pulse of life beats quickest, and continue to beget children until he be fifty-five…a man may not marry his daughter or his daughter's daughter, or his mother or his mother's mother; and women, on the other hand, are prohibited from marrying their sons or fathers, or son's son or father's father, and so on in either direction. And we grant all this, accompanying the permission with strict orders to prevent any embryo which may come into being from seeing the light; and if any force a way to the birth, the parents must understand that the offspring of such an union cannot be maintained, and arrange accordingly.”
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)
In his Politics, Book 7 section 1335b, written around 350 B.C., Aristotle suggested that laws should be made promoting abortion and the exposure of newborn children to limit children with deformities and to prevent overpopulation; yet, he also drew a line between lawful and unlawful abortions: “As to exposing or rearing 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.”
Abortion in Ancient Rome
Cicero (106-43 B.C.)
In his speech, For Aulus Cluentius 11.32: "I recollect that a certain Milesian woman, when I was in Asia, because she had by medicines brought on abortion, having ben bribed to do so by the heirs in reversion, was convicted of a capital crime; and rightly, in as much as 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 use of the republic. How much severer punishment does Oppianicus deserve for the same crime? For she, by doing this violence to her person, tortured her own body; but he effected the same crime through the torture and death of another. Other men do not appear to be able to commit many atrocious murders on one individual, but Oppianicus has been found clever enough to destroy many lives in one body..."
See also Laws 3.8.19
Dionysius of Harlicarnassus (60 B.C.-7 B.C.)
In his Roman Antiquities, 2.15.1-2, he recalls childbearing laws given by Rome's founder: “By these institutions Romulus sufficiently regulated and suitably disposed the city both for peace and for war: and he made it large and populous by the following means. In the first place, he obliged the inhabitants to bring up all their male children and the first-born of the females, and forbade them to destroy any children under three years of age unless they were maimed or monstrous from their very birth. These he did not forbid their parents to expose, provided they first showed them to their five nearest neighbours and these also approved. Against those who disobeyed this law he fixed various penalties, including the confiscation of half their property.”
Ovid (43 B.C.-A.D. 17)
Amores 2.14 poetically speaks against abortion as an immoral practice (the translation from Latin to English attempts to capture its poetry):
What boots it that the fair are free from war, And what that they're forbid the shield to bear,
Against themselves if they knew arms employ And madly with new wounds their lives destroy?
The cruel mother who did first contrive Her babe to butcher ere 'twas scarce alive,
Who thus from nature's tender dictates swerv'd, To perish by her proper hands deserv'd.
Why do the sex forget their softness? why Such projects for a foolish fancy try?
The belly must be smooth, no wrinkle there To shock the lover's wanton glance appear;
His touch as well as sight they fain would please, And the womb early of its burden ease.
Had woman sooner known this wicked trade, Among the race of men what havock had they made.
Mankind had been extinct, and lost the seed, Without a wonder to restore the breed,
As when Deucalion and his Purrha hurl'd The stones that sow'd with men the delug'd world,
Had Thetis, goddess of the sea, refus'd To bear the burden, and her fruit abus'd,
Who would have Priam's royal seat destroy'd? Or had the vestal whom fierce Mars enjoy'd,
Stifled the twins within her pergnant womb, What founder would have then been born to Rome?
Had Venus, when she with Aeneas teem'd, To death, ere born, Anchises' son condemn'd,
The world had of the Caesars been depriv'd; Augustus ne'er had reign'd, nor Julius liv'd.
And thou, whose beauty is the boast of fame, Hadst perish'd, had thy mother done the same;
Nor had I liv'd love's faithful slave to be, Had my own mother dealt as ill by me.
Ah, vile invention, ah, accurs'd design, To rob of rip'ning fruit the loaded vine
Ah, let it grow for nature's use mature, Ah, let it its full length of time endure;
'Twill of itself, alas! too soon decay, And quickly fall, like autumn leaves, away
Why barb'rously dost thou thy bowels tear To kill the human load that quickens there?
On venom'd drugs why venture, to destroy The pledge of pleasure past, the promis'd boy?
Medea, guilty of her childrens' blood, The mark of ev'ry age's curse has stood;
And Atys, murder'd by his mothers rage, Been pitied since by each succeeding age;
Thy cruel parents by false lords abus'd, Had yet some plea, tho' none their crime excus'd.
What, Jason, did your dire revenge provoke? What, Tereus, urge you to the fatal stroke?
What rage your reason led so far away, As furious hands upon yourself to lay?
The tigresses that haunt th' Armenian wood, Will spare their proper young, though pinch'd for food;
Nor will the Libyan lionesses slay Their whelps, -- but woman are more fierce than they;
More barb'rous to the tender fruit they bear, Nor nature's call, tho' loud she cries, will hear.
But righteous vengeance oft their crimes pursues, And they are lost themselves, who would their children lose;
The pois'nous drugs with mortal juices fill Their veins, and, undesign'd, themselves they kill
Themselves upon the bier are breathless borne, With hair tied up that was in ringlets worn,
Thro' weeping crowds that on their course attend; Well may they weep for their unhappy end.
Forbid it, heaven, that what I say may prove Presaging to the fair I blame and love;
Thus let me ne'er, ye pow'rs, her death deplore, 'Twas her first fault, and she'll offend no more;
No pardon she'll deserve a second time, But, without mercy, punish then her crime.
Heroides XI: Canace to Marcareus, lines 11.33-42, poetically speaks of a failed abortion attempt:
My nurse, with her old woman's soul, first divined my trouble;
My nurse first said to me, "Daughter of Aeolus, you are in love!"
I blushed, and shame took my eyes down to my lap;
These signs were enough that I confessed in silence.
And now the burden swelled my corrupted womb,
And the secret load pressed my sickly limbs.
What herbs, what medicines did my nurse not bring to me,
And put on with bold hand,
In order to strike out from my entrails--we hid this one thing from you--
The weight that was growing deep within.
Ah, too vigorous, the infant resisted the arts brought against it,
And was safe from the hidden enemy.
Seneca (3 B.C.-A.D. 65)
In De ira (On Anger), 1.15, he mentions the common practice of infanticide: “For what reason have I for hating a man to whom I am offering the greatest service when I save him from himself? Does a man hate the members of his own body when he uses the knife upon them? There is no anger there, but the pitying desire to heal. Mad dogs we knock on the head; the fierce and savage ox we slay; sickly sheep we put to the knife to keep them from infecting the flock; unnatural progeny we destroy; we drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal...”
In a letter to his mother, To Helvia His Mother on Consolation 16.3, he praises her for not aborting: “Unchastity, the greatest evil of our time, has never classed you with the great majority of women; jewels have not moved you, nor pearls; to your eyes the glitter of riches has not seemed the greatest boon of the human race; you, who were soundly trained in an old-fashioned and strict household, have not been perverted by the imitation of worse women that leads even the virtuous into pitfalls; you have never blushed for the number of your children, as if it taunted you with your years, never have you, in the manner of other women whose only recommendation lies in their beauty, tried to conceal your pregnancy as if an unseemly burden, nor have you ever crushed the hope of children that were being nurtured in your body; you have not defiled your face with paints and cosmetics; never have you fancied the kind of dress that exposed no greater nakedness by being removed. In you has been seen that peerless ornament, that fairest beauty on which time lays no hand, that chiefest glory which is modesty.”
Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79)
In his The Natural History, he discusses causes and preventatives of abortion, the morality of abortion, various contraceptives, etc.:
Book VII, Chapter IV: “Pregnant women, on the other hand, are in the greatest danger during the fourth and the eighth month, and abortions during these periods are fatal.”
Book VII, Chapter V: “...and abortion ensues, if the female should happen to sneeze just after the sexual congress. It is a subject for pity, and even for a feeling of shame, when one reflects that the origin of the most vain of all animated beings is thus frail: so much so, indeed, that very often the smell even of a lamp just extinguished is a cause of abortion.”
Book VII, Chapter XII: “A child used to be called Vopiscus, who, when twins had been conceived, had been retained in the womb and born alive, the other having perished by abortion. There are, too, some very remarkable instances of this kind, although they are singularly rare and uncommon.”
Book X, Chapter 83: “The only one among the bipeds that is viviparous is man. Man is the only animal that repents of his first embraces; sad augury, indeed, of life, that its very origin should thus cause repentance! Other animals have stated times in the year for their embraces; but man, as we have already observed, employs for this purpose all hours both of day and night; other animals become sated with venereal pleasures, man hardly knows any satiety. Messalina, the wife of Claudius Cæsar, thinking this a palm quite worthy of an empress, selected, for the purpose of deciding the question, one of the most notorious of the women who followed the profession of a hired prostitute; and the empress outdid her, after continuous intercourse, night and day, at the twenty-fifth embrace. In the human race also, the men have devised various substitutes for the more legitimate exercise of passion, all of which outrage Nature; while the females have recourse to abortion. How much more guilty than the brute beasts are we in this respect! Hesiod has stated that men are more lustful in winter, women in summer.”
Book XXIX, Chapter 27: “A third kind, also known as the 'phalangium,' is a spider with a hairy body, and a head of enormous size. When opened, there are found in it two small worms, they say: these, attached in a piece of deer's skin, before sunrise, to a woman's body, will prevent conception…"
Book XXX, Chapter 43: “The ashes of a burnt poricupinel taken in drink, are a preventive of abortion: bitches' milk facilitates delivery: and the after- birth of a bitch, provided it has not touched the ground, will act as an expellent of the fœtus. Milk, taken as a drink, strengthens the loins of women when in travail. Mouse-dung, diluted with rain water, reduces the breasts of females, when swollen after delivery. The ashes of a burnt hedge-hog, applied with oil, act as a preventive of abortion… If a pregnant woman steps over a viper, she will be sure to miscarry.”
Book XXXI, Chapter VII: “The waters of Thespiæ ensure conception to females; the same, too, with those of the river Elatus in Arcadia. The spring Linus, also in Arcadia, acts as a preservative of the fœtus, and effectually prevents abortion. The waters of the river Aphrodisius, on the other hand, in the territory of Pyrrhsæa, are productive of sterility.”
Musonius Rufus (A.D. 20/30-101) Discourse 12-15: Forthcoming...
Dioscorides (A.D. 40-90)
Dio Chrysostom (A.D. 40-120)
In his Discourses, Fifteenth Discourse: On Slavery and Freedom II, he mentions how poor slaves who have become pregnant by their masters often sought to get abortions in secret: “…but in the case of slave women, on the other hand, some destroy the child before birth and others afterwards, if they can do so without being caught, and yet sometimes even with the connivance of their husband, that they may not be involved in trouble by being compelled to raise children in addition to their enduring slavery."
Plutarch (A.D. 46-120)
In the biography, Romulus 22.3, he recounts a law from Romulus where a husband could divorce his wife for using "poisons," i.e., drugs that cause abortion: “He also enacted certain laws, and among them one of severity, which forbids a wife to leave her husband, but permits a husband to put away his wife for using poisons, for substituting children, and for adultery; but if a man for any other reason sends his wife away, the law prescribes that half his substance shall belong to his wife, and the other half be consecrate to Ceres; and whosoever puts away his wife, shall make a sacrifice to the gods of the lower world.”
Juvenal (A.D. 57/67-127)
In his Satires he presents an unfavorable view of abortion:
2.29-35: “Such a man was that adulterer who, after lately defiling himself by a union of the tragic style, revived the stern laws that were to be a terror to all men-ay, even to Mars and Venus-at the moment when Julia was relieving her fertile womb and giving birth to abortions that displayed the similitude of her uncle. Is it not then right and proper that the very worst of sinners should despise your pretended Scauri, and bite back when bitten?"
6.592-601: “These poor women, however, endure the perils of child-birth, and all the troubles of nursing to which their lot condemns them; but how often does a gilded bed contain a woman that is lying in? So great is the skill, so powerful the drugs, of the abortionist, paid to murder mankind within the womb. Rejoice, poor wretch; give her the stuff to drink whatever it be, with your own hand: for were she willing to get big and trouble her womb with bouncing babes, you might perhaps find yourself the father of an Ethiopian; and some day a coloured heir, whom you would rather not meet by daylight, would fill all the places in your will.”
Suetonius (A.D. 69/75-130)
In his discussion on the Emperor Domition in The Twelve Caesars, Domition 22 (or Domition 22), he recalls an incident where the Emperor compelled a lover to get an abortion: “He was excessively lustful. His constant sexual intercourse he called bed-wrestling, as if it were a kind of exercise. It was reported that he depilated his concubines with his own hand and swam with common prostitutes. After persistently refusing his niece, who was offered him in marriage when she was still a maid, because he was entangled in an intrigue with Domitia, he seduced her shortly afterwards when she became the wife of another, and that too during the lifetime of Titus. Later, when she was bereft of father and husband, he loved her ardently and without disguise, and even became the cause of her death by compelling her to get rid of a child of his by abortion.”
Favorinus (A.D. 80-150)
In Noctes Atticae ("Attic Nights") 12.1, the Roman writer Aulus Gellius spoke of how the philosopher Favorinus viewed women who aborted to spare their own beauty: "For it is for that reason (though such a thing is of course far from your thoughts) that many of those unnatural women try to dry up and check that sacred fount of the body, the nourisher of mankind, regardless of the danger of diverting and spoiling the milk, because they think it disfigures the charms of their beauty. In so doing they show the same madness as those 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 labour of parturition. 9 But since it is an act worthy of public detestation and general abhorrence to destroy a human being in its inception, while it is being fashioned and given life and is still in the hands of Dame Nature, how far does it differ from this to deprive a child, already perfect, of the nourishment of its own familiar and kindred blood?”
Soranus (A.D. 98-117)
In his Gynecology 3.19.60 (not online), he sanctioned murdering babies not fit for rearing.
Galen of Pergamum (A.D. 129-200)
On Natural Faculties, Book 3, Part 12: “Now abortifacient drugs or certain other conditions which destroy the embryo or rupture certain of its membranes are followed by abortion, and similarly also when the uterus is in pain from being in a bad state of tension; and, as has been well said by Hippocrates, excessive movement on the part of the embryo itself brings on labour.”
Papinian (A.D. 140-212)
Oribasius (A.D. 320-400)
Justinian Digest 184.108.40.206; 220.127.116.11; 18.104.22.168; 22.214.171.124; 47; 48.8.8; 126.96.36.199; 48.19.39
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