Saturday, April 21, 2012

Abortion History I - Abortion in Ancient Times



Although abortion is still a controversial topic nowadays, it seems that there have been records of it dating back to ancient times. There were various methods used by people to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy, from ingesting various substances to mechanical techniques that would imply pressure or even the use of various objects.

The first mention of abortion is in the Ebers papyrus, however it is not known for sure whether abortions were performed. The papyrus only mentions two remedies which "cause all to come out which is in the stomach of a woman", possibly referring to inducing a miscarriage. The Egyptian recipe is based on acacia berries and it specifically states that it can stop a pregnancy at any time.

Abortion was also done in Ancient China and there are documents reporting royal concubines who had abortions as early as 515 BCE and folklore indicates that mercury potions were used in this direction. 

Documents from China (750 BCE) claim that abortificiants were known and regularly use as early as 3,000 BCE. A large variety of non-medical writings throughout the ancient world suggest mundane solutions like hard rubbing or massage on the uterus, riding a horse, or heavy lifting. The general understanding was simple - things that caused miscarriages could be channeled to intentionally cause them. Due to economic problems and famine, there was a high number of abortions during Edo periods, especially among peasants who couldn’t afford having another child. Other Asian text, such as Japanese texts state that there were shrines dedicated to lost and aborted children that first appeared in 1200s. 

Overall, the ancient methods used for abortion were mostly mechanical and non-intrusive. Hard physical labor such as climbing, paddling, weightlifting, diving, or extreme labor were common. Other methods included fasting, bloodletting, applying hot water compresses or pouring hot water directly on the abdomen. There are some archeological discoveries that might indicate some surgical attempts to extract the fetus but they were scarcely used.

Abortion as a biblical tale
There is a passage in Numbers where a woman’s infidelity is tested through a concoction that might make her abort the baby. If the woman was not unfaithful she would remain pregnant and it would be her husband’s child; on the other hand, if the woman had a miscarriage she was guilty of adultery.  

Popular Abortion Reports
Even Hippocrates induced abortions to his patients and there seems to be recorded how he instructed a prostitute to have a miscarriage by jumping up and down. He also used other methods to induce abortions to  such as dilation and curettage, which seem incredibly modern for those times.

Soranus of Ephesus recommended various methods to induce abortion such as enemas, fasting, emmenagogues (herbs that stimulate blood flow in the pelvic area), and even bloodletting. He also advised against using sharp objects to induce abortion as practitioners risked perforating their patients’ organs.

It seems that even Aristotle had something to say about abortion and this only shows how much of a common practice it was during Ancient times. He wrote “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."

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