Abortion: as old as pregnancy itself

One of the most contentious and emotionally charged issues in American politics today is the issue of abortion and a woman’s right to choose. Forgotten in the increasingly divisive crusade to deny women the right to make decisions over the autonomy of their own bodies and their right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term is the fact that abortion is as old as pregnancy itself.

Contemporary discussions about abortion often seem to begin and end with 1973 – the year of the ruling in Roe v. Wade, in which the Supreme Court handed down one of the most life-altering decisions for women in the court’s history. That decision has rippled through American culture – and, indeed, across the world – in multiple ways that continue to profoundly impact women, their life choices, their financial well-being, and their expectations of fulfilling the promise of their lives.

As the debate rages on, and as countless numbers of women’s lives and the lives of their families are impacted by the narrowing of abortion access in states across the country, it’s important to remember that the undeniable fact of women seeking to control the destinies of their bodies predates by centuries that decision in 1973. It’s also important to remember that the history of abortion cannot be recalled without acknowledging the fears and sheer desperation that led our female forebears to tolerate the dangers, the pain, and the risk of remedies and procedures they hoped would end an unwanted pregnancy but often led instead to permanent bodily harm or death.

Abortion in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Let’s acknowledge as well that, contrary to popular belief, abortion restrictions and the outright denial of abortion access is a relatively new development in America’s history. In her definitive history of abortion in America, “When Abortion Was a Crime,” historian Leslie Reagan recounts how abortion used to be a part of everyday American life. In the eighteenth century until the late nineteenth century, abortions were commonly performed and were permitted under common law until “quickening” – a term that describes the stage when fetal movement in the womb may be felt by the mother. Prior to 1880, even the Catholic Church tolerated the reality of abortion. As Reagan explains, “the Catholic Church implicitly accepted early abortions prior to ensoulment. Not until 1869, at about the same time that abortion became politicized in this country, did the church condemn abortion; in 1895 it condemned therapeutic abortion [procedures performed to save the life of the mother].”

In 1857, the newly constituted American Medical Association undertook what could be considered one of the first large-scale lobbying efforts to criminalize abortion. Due to concerns about poisonings, but also reflecting a growing backlash to women’s emerging role in American public life and the desire of member physicians to professionalize the practice of medicine and limit the competition of midwives and homeopaths, the AMA pushed for state laws restricting abortion. In 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Law, banning abortion drugs. By 1880, the AMA’s efforts lobbying for state laws restricting abortion bore their bitter fruit.

Abortions in ancient times

Even earlier historic accounts provide a glimpse into the common practice of women seeking to abort unwanted pregnancies. These accounts not only comment on procedures but also recount a long list of recipes for pastes, pessaries, ingestions, salves, suppositories, and ingested herbal toxins. Folk cultures across the world and across time abound with an almost limitless variety of abortifacients and methods for their use passed on from one generation to the next. The acknowledgment of abortion as a fact of women’s reproductive lives was not limited to folk culture and the ministrations of shamans, herbalists, and midwives. The most influential philosophers, scientists, and physicians of ancient times wrote about and often provided advice about the most effective abortion techniques.

In the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus, one of the earliest known medical texts from ancient Egypt, the use of crocodile dung made into a pessary to be inserted into the vagina was the recommended method to induce abortion.

In ancient Greece, the musings of Aristotle in his work “Politics” foreshadow some of the thorniest terms of the debate raging through to our own time.

Aristotle 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.”

The Greek physician Hippocrates, although mostly opposed to abortion, counseled that a woman seeking to end a pregnancy could “jump up and down, touching her buttocks with her heels at each leap” – causing the embryo to come “loose” and fall out. This was a technique that later became known as the Lacedaemonian Leap. Other Greek physicians recommended the ingestion of myrrh, rue, and juniper.

In the days of the Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History” provided evidence that women of his time sought to limit the number of pregnancies. His practical–-if ineffective—advice confirmed that “if a pregnant woman steps over a viper, she will be sure to miscarry.”

An eighth-century Sanskrit manuscript recommended sitting over a pot of boiling water or steamed onions –a questionable pregnancy-ending technique used by Jewish women on New York’s Lower East Side well into the twentieth century.

Here are some of the methods women have used, throughout history, to try to induce abortions

  • Ingesting a meal of toxic lupines with ox bile and absinthium
  • Smearing the mouth of the uterus with olive oil, honey, cedar resin, and the juice of the balsam tree
  • Myrtle oil gums
  • Sitting in a bath of linseed, fenugreek, mallow, marshmallow, and wormwood
  • Creating a paste of ants, foam from camel’s mouths, and tail hairs of black-tail deer dissolved in bear fat
  • Ingesting pennyroyal or drinking of pennyroyal tea (5 grams of which is toxic and may lead to death)
  • Fumigating the womb with various poisons
  • Opium ingested with mandrake root, Queen Anne’s lace, gum resin, and various types of peppers (in 2011 it was reported that women in Pakistan are still using opium bombs in the uterus to end unwanted pregnancies)
  • Inducing abortion by riding horses or carrying heavy objects
  • Inserting a uterine suppository of mouse dung, honey, Egyptian salt, wild colocynth, and resin

Today in America, one in four women will have an abortion by the age of forty-five. Tellingly, 59 percent of women seeking abortions are mothers. Many of us believed that the Roe v. Wade decision was settled law and that the decision would forever protect a woman’s right to choose. We also believed that access to safe, legal abortions would relegate to the ash heap of history the home-induced abortions using toxic, poisonous chemicals or the back-alley horrors of knitting needles and coat hangers. Will we be proven wrong? And will women be returned once again to the uncertainties and dangers that women who came before us were forced to face?