Thursday, April 26, 2012

Abortion History II - Abortion In Medieval Times

During the medieval period the perspective on abortion and contraception in general was greatly influenced by theological writings. But there were many methods still used since antiquity and many late antique authors had a great influence on how abortion was performed. Authors like Celsus, Pliny, Galen, Oribasius, Marcellus Empiricus and Aeitius prescribed different drinks, suppositories, lotions and physical manipulations that were meant to help women get rid of their unwanted pregnancy. There were also some chirurgical methods and some superstitions that were also used whenever a woman wanted to have an abortion.  

Theodorus Priscianus created quite a stir with his book on medicine, especially the part that was related to different gynecological issues. He was influenced by Hippocrates and although he believed that helping women lose their pregnancy was in a way profane to medicine, he saw some exceptions that were meant to be taken into consideration by practitioners. Some of the exceptions mentioned were cases when there was a certain uterine disease or an inappropriate age that could endanger a woman’s life. So there was this new problem: should a doctor get rid of a fetus to save a woman’s life or, as some religious people believed, they shouldn’t act and let God decide. Opinions were different and while some believed that they shouldn’t interfere with God’s work, others proceeded in prescribing different methods for abortion when it was needed.  

One of the most extreme methods of abortion during the medieval period was, of course, a chirurgical practice called embryotomy. Simply put, this was the removing of a dead or alive fetus from the mother’s womb due to some complications that could endanger her life. It seems that this was a fairly common practice whenever complications appeared and there are some archeological discoveries that point in this direction. For example, a decapitated infant with other multiple mutilations that has been found at a gravesite in Poundbury Dorset buried without the mother shows that she probably survived after undergoing an embryotomy. When talking about surgical methods we cannot forget about the caesarian section; but this was used to save the fetus and not the mother. Both these operations were performed by doctors, surgeons and probably midwives. The 2nd and 3rd century theologian Tertullian describes embryotomy as a cruel necessity and it seems to be a difference between this emergency procedure and other invasive methods of abortion. For example, some practitioners used knitting needles or coat-hangers to puncture the amniotic sack or pierce the fetus in order to provoke a premature labor.

Tertullian described some surgical procedures that were similar to what now is known as dilation and evacuation. The tools used in this procedure were described as a "nicely-adjusted flexible frame" used for dilation, an "annular blade" used to curette, a "blunted or covered hook" used for extraction and a "copper needle or spike". He considers that this practice dated back to ancient practitioners such as Hippocrates and Soranus. But his view on abortion was definitely one that rejected it even when the pregnancy was in an early stage; he considered that we cannot kill what has been conceived in the womb. Other theologians such as Clement of Alexandria and Methodius of Olympus went so far as imagining how the apocalypse would be for aborting mothers. It seems that the children ”born due out of time” were saved by God; their mothers, however, had a cruel eternal life – their breast milk would leak and it would congeal thus giving them extreme pain.  

Pope Callistus was criticized due to his complicity in abortion as he allowed noblewomen to take up partners without legal marriage. A common practice was to corset themselves to be unable to carry a pregnancy to full term, because they did not wish to have a child with a commoner or, worse, a slave. But the methods of abortion were scarcely described by theologians; Ambrose of Milan, Jerome and Augustine mention some potions used in abortion.  

Some of the abortificent potions that were prescribed during medieval times contained emmenagogues, plants that will increase blood flow in the pelvic area. There were many recipes that were passed since antiquity and became quite popular during medieval times, being often quoted in medical texts.

These potions were called aborti venena (abortive potions) or sterilitatis venena (potions for sterility), which usually contained some poisonous substances. Pessaries, suppositories and infusions were also used to induce abortion by inserting them into the vagina. Pessaries were actually tampons made of wool, soaked in a mixture of herbs that were either used as a contraceptive method or a way to provoke miscarriage. Pills were taken orally but contained mixtures of herbs as well; there were also cataplasms, poultices or compresses that were applied externally. Some abortions also included a sort of massage to relax the body during the procedure with the help of different ointments. It is interesting to see that nowadays almost the same methods are used to induce labor in the first weeks of pregnancy; the famous mifepristone and misoprostol are synthetic versions of the potions used in medieval times.  Some mixtures contained belladonna, honeysuckle, cedar oil, cabbage leaves or mandrake. In Germanic folklore the prostitute root is mentioned, which is the root of worm fern, another contraceptive herb.

Fumigations were also popular and they can be described as a method of steam vaporization that involved introducing different substances internally by making a woman seat over the steam produced by a fumigation pot. Sponge baths and bathing in general are also connected to abortions during antiquity and early medieval times. For example, Priscianus mentions having two baths as a part of an abortion treatment. However, baths were also often used for a difficult or long birth process.

Bloodletting was a common practice for most medical problems and obviously it was a cure for pregnancy too. It is pretty obvious why women who underwent phlebotomy had an increased risk of miscarriage.

Hebrew books such as The Book of Women’s love contain passages on abortion and some birth control methods. Most Hebrew medical texts have been often interpreted that they permit abortion and contraception in some exceptional cases. Abortions were allowed when a woman’s life was in danger and contraception measures were supposed to be used by minors and breastfeeding women.

The religious view upon this matter was simple in theory but really hard to put in practice. It seemed that the responsibility fell on the woman who needed to coerce her husband to a life of chastity – as it was the only allowed way to avoid pregnancy. However, the law stated that married women had no legal right to refuse sex with their husbands, not to mention the fact that masters often raped their slaves. Women who used contraceptive herbs as well as herbs that would help them get pregnant were considered to practice occult arts and were punished. But when it came to men, religious officials felt overwhelmed by the number of men who needed to be punished and often considered that they couldn’t excommunicate them since they were simply too many and probably important members of society.  


Further reading:


  1. Abortion was made legal in all fifty states of America when a woman named Norma McCorvey was used in the court trial. She allegedly wanted an abortion, but never had it so she agreed to make herself available for the court to legalize abortion. However, according to her in later years, abortion is not good and she was turned as a pro-life individual. The legalization of abortion was also decided by group of men who do not understand in any way what it feels to be pregnant or become pregnant. It is ironic that those who do not know anything about the matter and side-effects of abortion are the ones who decided for women.
    Women who opt for abortion should have proper counseling and support group to help them decide on the best thing to do. Women should also be educated that abortion is not in any way advantageous because there are a lot of side-effects of abortion.

  2. That's very interesting. Thanks for your comment; although your point is valid, abortion shouldn't be used as a contraceptive method, women have the right to have the abortion legalized as well as have the right to choose to have children. Making abortion legal doesn't impair women's choice of having children, so I don't believe that we should consider that "they made the choice for women". Actually, keeping it illegal could be considered as making the choice for them. Yes I agree with the fact that women should have proper counseling whether they choose or not to keep the child, some pregnancies can be tough, women could go through a lot of emotions and I guess they need therapy in that case too. Also, yes, I believe that there isn't enough sexual education to prevent the high number of abortion or teen pregnancies from happening.

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