It is just over 50 years since the 1967 Abortion Act was passed. It therefore seems fitting to examine the history of abortion and consider how this practice has changed over time, from antiquity to the twentieth century. This blog uses evidence from ancient treatises and excerpts from a collection of personal accounts from the mid-twentieth century published by Marie Stopes International (see further reading). It argues that despite the transcendence of two millennia, there was little change in abortion practices as a result of the secretive and stigmatised nature of the act.
Physical exertion was a traditional method used to try and induce an abortion. Although only successful in the most extreme of cases, it was a commonly held belief in antiquity that prevailed until the mid-twentieth century. The ancient Hippocratic Corpus describes the ‘Lacedaemonian Leap’ which involved jumping up and down, touching one’s buttocks with the heels at each leap, to try and induce a miscarriage.
This belief in the abortive properties of physical exertion is also evident in personal accounts from the mid-twentieth century. ‘Alice’ fell pregnant at just 16 in 1963. She describes how ashamed her parents were when they found out, and how her father physically abused her to try and achieve this aim: ‘We lived in a house in Clifton, which had very steep stairs. My dad was there and he literally punched me in the stomach and then pushed me down the stairs’.
A wide variety of oral abortifacients were employed in antiquity. These ranged from a concoction of common herbs and plants that could be grown in one’s own garden, to exotic substances more difficult to obtain. The popularity of purging oral substances, both diuretics and laxatives, for the purposes of abortion is evident in Soranus’ Gynaecology.
Returning to the case of sixteen-year-old ‘Alice’, she describes how she came home from school one day ‘to find this strange concoction brewing in the kitchen. It was a natural laxative my mother said. They thought it would bring on a miscarriage’. On another occasion, Alice reports that her father ‘produced some little black pills and told me to take them’.
An abortion method combining both physical and oral elements is found in the commonly held belief in the efficacy of hot baths and alcohol. This is particularly advocated by Soranus in the ancient period, who advises ‘lingering in the baths and drinking first a little wine and living on pungent food’ in order to induce an abortion.
Such methods are also evident in the mid-twentieth century. When ‘Isa’ was denied a recommendation for a termination in 1962, she describes ‘getting blind drunk on gin and taking hot baths and God knows what else’.
Douching was a popular abortion method in the mid-twentieth century. ‘Jane’ recounts her two experiences of backstreet abortion in the 1950s: ‘Both were done in the same way, by different backstreet abortionists, using a douche, Lux and Dettol’.
Interestingly, there is in fact evidence for the use of douching devices in antiquity, especially in Hippocratic times. However, douching tended to be used to promote conception, rather than to prevent or terminate a pregnancy. For example, Hippocrates’ Diseases of Women advises a solution of ‘mare’s milk’ to be injected into the womb using a douching device to help treat an ulcerated uterus that is preventing successful conception.
Surgical methods were recognised as the most dangerous means of abortion in antiquity, and were only resorted to in the most desperate circumstances, typically when the fetus was fairly well-developed and other methods had failed. Celsus, writing in the first century AD, described the technique of surgical removal as ‘reckoned amongst the most difficult: for it both requires the highest prudence and tenderness, and is attended with the greatest danger’.
However, there is clear evidence to suggest that these procedures did occur. Celsus is particularly detailed in his medical account of the surgical removal of an already dead fetus that had not been intentionally aborted:
…if the head is nearest, a hook should be introduced, in every part smooth, with a short point, which is properly fixed either in the eye, or the ear, or the mouth sometimes even in the forehead; and then begin drawn outwards, brings away the child.
There is an argument that such instruments were only used in cases where the fetus had already expired and not as a means of procuring abortion. However, references to the instrument known as embruosphaktes (literally: ‘embryo-slayer’), suggests otherwise.
There is similar evidence for instrumental methods used in the mid-twentieth century. Again, it is generally accepted that such intervention would be resorted to only when other less invasive methods had failed. Given the potential for physical harm this is hardly surprising. ‘June’ shares her memories of backstreet abortion in 1959: ‘I knew that women had been damaged severely from abortions going wrong. Knitting needles. We’d all heard stories about knitting needles and coat hangers’.
The ‘crochet hook’ was another popular instrument used in attempted abortion, easily obtainable and a common household item like the knitting needle and the coat hanger. The similarities between the description of the hook-like instrument from antiquity and the mid-twentieth century crochet hook depicted below are striking:
Image 1: Crochet hook – a hooked instrument for removing an aborted fetus. Wellcome Images.
This blog has drawn attention to the significant parallels existing between abortion practices of antiquity and those of the mid-twentieth century, prior to the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act. I suggest that it was the stigmatised culture of abortion that led to this stagnation in abortion practices.
- Soo Brookstone (Ed), Voices for Choice(London: Marie Stopes International, 1997).
- Aulus Cornelius Celsus, Cornelius Celsus of medicine. In eight books. Translated by James Greive, (London, 1756).
- Hippocrates, Hippocratic Writings, edited by G.E.R. Lloyd, (London: Penguin Books, 1983).
- Soranus, Gynaecology, translated with an introduction by Owsei Temkin, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1991).
- Konstantinos Kapparis, Abortion in the Ancient World, (London: Duckworth Publishers, 2002)
- John Riddle, Contraception and abortion from the ancient world to the Renaissance, (United States of America: Harvard University Press, 1992).