Abortion in the Ancient and Premodern World

A History of Traditional Methods

Parthenon of Athens
Parthenon of Athens. George Papapostolou photographer / Getty Images

While modern technology is quite new in historical terms, the practice of abortion and menstrual "regulation" is ancient. Traditional methods have been handed down for hundreds of generations and herbal and other methods have roots in the distant past. It should be noted that many ancient and medieval methods and preparations are extremely risky and many are not at all effective, so experimentation is quite unwise.

We know abortion was practiced in biblical times from the passage in Numbers (note 1) where alleged infidelity is tested by giving an abortifacient potion to an accused pregnant woman. The "bitter water" used to "bring on the curse" may have been quinine or several of other herbal and natural concoctions that are considered emmagogues, or drugs that bring on menstruation.

Such herbs and other concoctions are in reality often implantation inhibitors or abortifacients. According to the biblical tale, if the woman had not been unfaithful, the drug would not work and the pregnancy was assumed to be the husband’s child. If she miscarried, she was considered guilty of adultery and no questionable parentage ensued.

Abortion was recorded in 1550 B.C.E. in Egypt, recorded in what is called the Ebers Papyrus (note 2) and in ancient China about 500 B.C.E. as well (note 3). In China, folklore dates the use of mercury to induce abortions to about 5,000 years ago (note 4).

Of course, mercury is extremely toxic.

Hippocrates also offered abortion to his patients despite being opposed to pessaries and potions which he considered too dangerous. He is recorded as having instructed a prostitute to induce abortion by jumping up and down. This is certainly safer than some other methods, but rather ineffective.

It is also believed that he used dilation and curettage to induce abortions as well (note 5). Abortion opponents often use the Hippocratic Oath of physicians as an argument against abortion per se, but the opposition had only to do with patient safety.

Herbal methods were likely more common and many of the traditional herbs and mixtures are in use even today. Pennyroyal dates at least to the 1200’s when manuscripts show herbalists preparing it (note 6), but the oil is extremely dangerous and modern herbalists avoid it. Deaths from its use were recorded in the US in the 1990's.

A medieval herbal reference called De Viribus Herbarum referred to herbs to induce abortions even earlier in the 11th century. Pennyroyal was among the herbs mentioned but so were catnip, rue. Sage, savory, cypress, and hellebore (note 6). Some of the drugs are listed as emmagogues rather that explicitly as abortifacents, but since the most common cause of a late menstrual period is pregnancy, there is little doubt why they were prescribed and used. Hildegard of Bingen mentions the use of tansy to bring on menstruation.

Some herbs have been mentioned for centuries. One is a plant called the worm fern whose root is used to cause an abortion.

It is telling that it was also known as "prostitute’s root" historically. Also used in the same area of Europe were thyme, parsley, lavender, and savin juniper. Even concoctions of camel saliva and deer hair were used (note 7).

The right of women to seek abortions was not restricted in many places until fairly recently, with most restrictions being related to the time of "quickening" or fetal movement. Even Plato proclaimed the right of women to seek early terminations of pregnancies in "Theaetetus", but specifically he spoke of the right of midwives to offer the procedure. In early times, most pregnancies were not managed by doctors so it was logical that abortion be provided by midwives and herbalists.

Other measures to induce abortions have included iron sulfates and chlorides, hyssop, dittany, opium, madder in beer, watercress seeds and even crushed ants.

Probably the herbs most commonly mentioned were tansy and pennyroyal. We know that tansy was used from at least the Middle Ages. One of the most brutal methods was practiced in the Orient in ancient times by violently kneading or beating the abdomen to cause abortion, a procedure with great peril to the woman who used it. Even in the 20th century, women were still trying Hippocrates’ jumping up and down method, likely with as little success as their ancient sisters (note 8).

Wise women have found and used herbs and other preparations to manage their fertility for generations. Some concoctions were contraceptive in nature and others were abortifacients or designated emmagogues. The latter are now believed to have worked to prevent implantation, a sort of ancient morning after pill. What we know for sure is that in the past as well as now women have found ways to manage unwanted pregnancies.

It should be noted that many ancient and medieval methods and preparations are extremely risky and many are not at all effective, so experimentation is quite unwise. There are modern practitioners who do know the folk remedies that are both effective and safe and should be relied upon before even considering such methods. Of course, modern women also have the more familiar medical procedures to choose instead of ancient remedies.

End Notes

Note 1: The Bible, Numbers 5:18. "And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and uncover the woman's head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which [is] the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse...." See also verses 19-28.

Note 2: Potts, Malcolm, & Campbell, Martha. "History of contraception." Gynecology and Obstetrics, vol. 6, ch. 8. 2002.

Note 3: Glenc, F. "Induced abortion - a historical outline." Polski Tygodnik Lekarski, 29 (45), 1957-8. 1974.

Note 4: Christopher Tietze and Sarah Lewit, "Abortion", Scientific American, 220 (1969), 21.

Note 5: Lefkowitz, Mary R. & Fant, Maureen R.

Women's Life in Greece & Rome: a Source Book in Translation. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Note 6: Riddle, John M. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Note 7: London, Kathleen. 1982. The History of Birth Control. The Changing American Family: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. Retrieved April 22, 2006 from the Yale University web site.

Note 8: London, Kathleen. "The History of Birth Control." The Changing American Family: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. Yale University, 1982.

General references:

Konstaninos Kapparis, Assistant Professor of Classics, University of Florida. Abortion in the Ancient World (Duckworth Classical Essays). Duckworth Publishers (May 2003).

John M. Riddle (Chair of the History Department and Alumni Distinguished Professor, North Carolina State University. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. Harvard University Press (April 1994).