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History of abortion

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The history of abortion dates back to the beginning of medicine and herbalism. As soon as humans figured out that avoiding some foods (specifically, herbs, roots, seeds, etc., with strong medicinal value) helped strengthen a pregnancy, women realized that consuming those foods might end an undesired pregnancy. The following article deals with both the history of the practice of abortion and with the development of the various legal, religion and societal views of the practice.

Medical history[edit]

The Ebers Papyrus. This is how we do it.

Anthropologists have claimed that some form of abortion (effective or not) exists in every culture so far studied.[1] The first recorded mention of herbs being used to cause an intentional miscarriage is from the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian document dated to be from about 1,500 BCE.[2] Scholars looking at clues from the language used in the papyrus have suggested that the medical information within could be as old as 2,500 BCE.[2][3] The Egyptian recipe is based on acacia berries, and it specifically states that it can stop a pregnancy at any time during the pregnancy.[3] Documents from China from 750 BCE claim that abortifacients were known and regularly used as early as 3,000 BCE. A large variety of non-medical writings throughout the ancient world suggested mundane solutions like hard rubbing or massage on the uterus, riding a horse, or heavy lifting. The general understanding was simple: things that accidentally caused miscarriages could be channeled to intentionally cause them.[3]

Japanese texts, as well as shrines dedicated to lost and aborted children, first appeared in the 1200s CE. There was a marked increase in abortion during the Edo periods, when famine hit the country. As always seems to be the case, it was the peasant class that turned to abortion practices to insure the survival of already-born children and the mothers during times of starvation.[3]

Drawing from a 13th-century manuscript of Pseudo-Apuleius's Herbarium, depicting a pregnant woman in repose, while another holds some pennyroyal in one hand and prepares a concoction using a mortar and pestle with the other.

By the Middle Ages, there were a large variety of herbs and concoctions used to cause uterine bleeds and contractions, including pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) and hellebore (Helleborus spp.). Of course, both of these drugs are extremely toxic, so the risk of death to women from using them was quite high. Fern, hyssop, and juniper were also frequently used. None of the treatments were significantly effective, and many were outright dangerous.[2][3]

Pennyroyal. Pretty but deadly

Near the end of the 19th century, effective medical and surgical abortion techniques were being developed. Women actively sought these services out, knowing that they were truly effective in ending the pregnancy. Much of the care given to women, including abortions (effective or not) was being conducted by midwives. With the advent of the new "medical" techniques, doctors began to demand legislation limiting access to these techniques. This was not as much about controlling who could have children, but controlling what "medical practices" were done by non-doctors in an attempt to monopolize all medical care.[4] This was the same era when doctors began to push out midwives, even when those women had better techniques and knew more about problem pregnancies. Unfortunately, the "territory grab" had the effect of denying women access to these services, since doctors were far more expensive and exclusive than midwives.[5] Most of the surgical abortions available in the middle and late 19th century involved partial or full hysterectomies, so they were not advised for first pregnancies. Dilation and curettage began in the very late 19th century, and though it is generally used for other medical conditions, it was widely used as an effective abortion procedure.

Vacuum aspirations began in 1958 as a far safer procedure with a substantially smaller risk of infection.[4] Dilation and evacuation, dilation and extraction, and the controversial intact dilation and extraction procedures were all accepted by the medical establishment with specific "best practices" by the mid-1960s.

Safe and effective medical (drug) abortions (like RU-486) were first marketed in France in 1988.[6] Currently, medical abortions are considered the safest method for terminating a healthy pregnancy. In Europe and the UK, medical abortions make up 80% of first trimester abortions. Though the purchase of drugs without a prescription is illegal in most places, and RU-486 itself is illegal in many parts of the world, RU-486 can be purchased online without a prescription and "sent anywhere". This safe drug, even administered without a prescription and purchased illegally, is still far safer than the alternatives of knife, fork, coat hanger or hot oil.[7]

Legal history[edit]

March for Women's Lives, 2004

For most of the history of abortion, society has accepted that there is a time period before which it is acceptable to terminate a pregnancy. For most cultures, this time frame fell before the quickening of the fetus (40 days to 3 months, depending on the culture). In some jurisdictions, there may be exceptions to the anti-abortion stance, in instances of consanguineous incest, affinitive incest, rape, fetal defects, socioeconomic factors, maternal life and health.[8]

Greece and Rome[edit]

The legal regulation of abortion as [it] existed in the Roman Empire was designed primarily to protect the rights of fathers rather than rights of embryos.
—Kristin Luker[9]

The first real ethical arguments about abortion appear in the philosophy of the Ancient Greeks. Aristotle specifically stated that if the fetus has not moved, a "human" has not been killed, since the soul is what animates the fetus.[note 1] Hippocrates, the Greek physician, mentioned a type of abortion that involved putting drugs or herbs into the vagina and prohibited this in his Hippocratic Oath. There is significant debate among modern scholars and historians of science if this was a prohibition against abortion, or a prohibition of a very dangerous procedure. The original text[10] states: I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion." On the other hand, it is known that Hippocrates advised women in how to induce "natural" miscarriages by riding horses, falling, or doing hard massages on their stomachs.[11][12] It has even been hypothesized by scholars that the oath may not have been written by Hippocrates, but by Pythagoreans, which were more staunchly anti-abortion, though there is no evidence of this.

Roman texts suggest that it was a minor crime to induce an abortion without a woman's knowledge. It is unclear if it was also a minor crime to induce one with her knowledge. However, the Romans did not offer any rights to a child until it had taken its first breath.

Jewish thought[edit]

Jewish interpretations of the Torah have traditionally viewed abortion as not being murder. However, it was still prohibited except for saving the life of the mother.

Early Christianity[edit]

Neither the Old nor New Testament of the Bible make any specific mention of abortion, though Numbers 5:11-31 refers to a ritual known as the "ordeal of the bitter water", which will test if a woman has been faithful to her husband by giving her a special potion concocted by a priest, possibly an abortifacient. If the woman was unfaithful, this will cause her "thigh" (a biblical euphemism for the woman's reproductive organs, as well as any embryo contained within) to "swell and fall away" (some texts use the term "rupture" instead of "fall away"), which is a likely reference to miscarriage. Because of the Bible's authors being so fond of euphemisms (contrary to Biblical literalism), it is a matter of debate whether this text is an endorsement for abortion when the woman is impregnated by someone who is not her husband (euphemistic interpretation) or simply a ritual that would presumably kill the wife for her adultery (literal interpretation).[13] The actual views of Christian society and the Church can definitively be gathered only via other extra-Biblical writings on theology and ethics.

During the 1st and 2nd century CE, abortion, intentional or forced miscarriages, and infanticide, were all commonplace, as families faced serious limitations on the number of people they could support. Though legal and ethical texts seem to suggest that this was somehow sinful, it did not take on any serious move to create or enforce a prohibition against abortion or infanticide. Scholars[note 2] have suggested that in the very early parts of the 1st and 2nd centuries, discussions about abortion and infanticide were effectively the same issue.

By the mid-2nd century however, Christians separated themselves from the pagan Romans and proclaimed that the theological and legal issues with abortion had nothing to do with the father's rights, but with God's view of the sanctity of life itself. It was as bad a sin as any other sexual sin, including contraception and intentional sterilization, which suggested that a central issue was the giving of one's body to God and being open for procreation as much as it was the inherent value of the unborn's life. The issue of when the soul enters the body, and if that should affect the ethics of abortion, remained unresolved, though Augustine of Hippo offered his opinion that it did not enter until the third or sixth month, depending on the sex (the latter for girls). However, while he did not view abortion as murder until that point, it was still a sin in his view.

Modern era[edit]

In the late 1850s to 1900, the American Medical Association pushed state by state to make abortion illegal. It is worth noting that the majority of people providing abortions at this time were midwives. Midwives were targeted by the medical establishment generally as well, and not just for this specifically, as they were physicians' main competition.

Major specific events and laws in the Western world[note 3]

  • 1551 The born alive rule is written by Edwan Cook. Abortion is a crime, but not murder.
  • 1803 In the UK, abortion becomes fully illegal with the Melicious Shooting or Stabbing Act. Abortion was defined here as a capital crime if done after quickening, and a lesser crime if done before the quickening.
  • 1821 The first US law against abortion, enacted in Connecticut. It made any attempt to stop a pregnancy via drugs or poison illegal.
  • 1861 The UK formalizes the legal view that all abortions are illegal.
  • 1873 The Comstock laws were passed, making information on birth control, family planning and of course abortion illegal to possess or distribute. Even for doctors to their patients.
  • 1920 The Soviet Union is the first country to make abortion legal on women's request.
  • 1931 Mexico is the first country to make abortion legal specifically in the case of rape.
  • 1935 Iceland is the first Western county to legalize abortion. Iceland specifies the conditions under which abortion is permitted, including rape, incest, and health of the woman. The typical medical procedure at this point was a hysterectomy.
  • 1938 In the UK, Dr. Bourne provided an abortion to a young girl who had been raped. This opened the nation and territories to discussions about the humanitarian side of abortion for some women.
  • 1959 In the USA a group called the American Law Institute attempts to address the legal rights of women in accessing safe abortion. California was the first state in the US to attempt to create legislation according to the ALI guidelines. (They failed that year, but enacted the guidelines in 1968).
  • 1967 Colorado becomes the first state to make abortion in the early term legal on demand.
  • 1969 Canada legalizes abortion but only for cases of rape, incest, health of the mother or judicially approved "extreme circumstances".
  • 1973 Roe v. Wade in the United States makes abortion on demand legal for all women in any circumstance for the first trimester. It retains the legal right for each state to legislate in the later stages of pregnancy.
  • Abortion becomes legal or decriminalized in France (1975) and Germany (1976).
  • 1976 The US Congress passes the "Hyde Act" which prohibits any federal funds being used for abortion services. It also allows states to pass the same kinds of prohibitions.
  • 1983 Ireland reinforces its anti-abortion stance, remaining among but a few counties that prohibit elective abortion. Ireland does allow some limited abortions to save a mother's life.
  • 1988 RU-486 is legalized in France, and marketed to the world.
  • 1988 Canada passes its final say on abortion, R. v. Morgentaler which fully legalizes abortion and makes the decision at all times a matter between the patient and her doctor. No criminal laws have existed in Canada since then regarding abortion, making it one of a small number of countries without any criminal restrictions on the procedure. However, it is still regulated by the professional medical associations and governing medical bodies, who set restrictions such as gestational age limits.
  • 2010 The European Court of Human Rights (not an EU institution) takes a case that could have been Europe's Roe v. Wade but splits the difference instead of making a clear decision one way or the other.

The pushback

As with all things, the pendulum that was perceived as swinging too far to the left, shocked and offended some and especially in the religious US, there was a push back to re-limit abortion.

  • 1989 Webster's Act in the US reinforced the Hyde Amendment, insuring states the right to deny funding abortion, even when the health of the mother was threatened.
  • 1990 The UK revisits the 1970 Abortion Act, and makes abortion only legal to 24 weeks, instead of 28 weeks.
  • Planned Parenthood v. Casey allows restrictions on abortion, including requirements for parental permission if the woman is a minor.
  • 1993 Poland bans all "on demand" abortions.
  • 1999 "partial birth" abortion is "tried" in US Courts and the US Congress. A bunch of non-medical "experts" testified that it's not good medicine.[14] A bunch of experts were denied their legal right to testify that it is an important procedure in some cases. Congress passes the bill, which is vetoed by President Bill Clinton.
  • 2000 RU-486 is approved by the FDA in the US. Congress attempts to immediately limit access.
  • 2003 The US Congress revisits the ban on "partial birth" abortion, and again invites non-medical experts to testify, and does not invite or read the amicus briefs sent to them by medical experts. Bush signs it into law.
  • 2008 Australia's State of Victoria decriminalizes abortion, making it legally accessible for the first 24 weeks of a pregnancy.
  • 2010 onward — In the US, with the election of the Tea Party, which is staunchly anti-abortion, over 300 anti-abortion bills and riders on non-relevant laws were introduced at state and federal level in one year.


  1. Ensoulation, or the actual moment the soul enters the human body, is a significant issue in early Greek, Roman, Christian, and Jewish discussions of abortion
  2. specifically, Bakke and Rosenkamp
  3. >This is all stolen directly from the Wikipedia article of the same name. These need to be individually referenced, but for right now, "Waiting for godot" stolen for ease.