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Abortion Throughout History: From Ancient Greece to Post-Roe America

Issue 273

Though many believe abortion to be a modern issue, the desire to control one’s reproductive choices has existed across millennia.

Molly Morrow Aug 19

Click here to read “Abortion and the Republican Party’s Unholy Alliance” by John Tarleton.

Though many believe abortion to be a modern issue set in motion by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the desire to control one’s reproductive choices, and often to terminate pregnancies, has existed across millennia. During that time legal and moral codes have ranged from highly restrictive to fully tolerant with many shades in between. In light of the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision, which has activated a variety of state bans on abortion, it is relevant to consider the wide range of attitudes toward abortion throughout history, and how those inform our beliefs today.

Ancient Greece

The Pythagoreans believed human life began at the moment of conception, and the Hippocratic oath spoke against abortion out of fear of injury to the woman undergoing one. However Plato and Aristotle both supported abortion as a means of population control. Aristotle believed abortion was permissible up to 40 days for a male embryo and up to three months for a female embryo, based on what he believed to be developmental differences around when the fetus obtained a human soul. In Politics, he argued that the line between lawful and unlawful should be the fetus’ development of sensation. However, Aristotle’s theory of potentiality, which concerns the possibility of what something may become, has been interpreted by Catholic moral philosophers to support the idea that a fetus should be protected from its earliest embryonic stage because it will later develop into a full person. A similar argument is later used in the Roe v. Wade decision, saying that at the point of viability, the fetus’ potentiality must be protected.

Biblical Times

Neither the Old nor the New Testament deals with or mentions abortion directly. Exodus 21:22-23 says that a fine must be paid for one who injures a woman and causes a miscarriage, but if the woman is seriously injured, the guilty party should be killed. Though several biblical passages mention fetuses or the womb, no passage directly mentions abortion, and the point at which a fetus becomes a life is not clear from the biblical text.

Early and Medieval Catholic Church

For much of the early Catholic Church’s history, abortion was seen as sinful primarily when used to hide the sins of fornication or adultery, and was even deemed less serious than the sexual sins it was meant to hide. The medieval philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas, influenced heavily by the ideas of Aristotle, said that the fetus’ soul became rational only when the body was developed. Only in 1869 was the distinction between formed and unformed fetuses no longer considered, and all abortions were explicitly condemned by the Catholic Church.

Europe: Middle Ages to 19th Century

Illustration by Gary Martin.

During the Middle Ages, abortion was typically left to women and midwives, and was not considered a legal offense until “quickening,” the time in which the fetus’ movements can be felt, around 16–18 weeks into pregnancy. In 1803, abortion even before quickening became a felony, and much of Europe and North America followed suit throughout the 19th century. 

Native Americans

Typically, Native Americans, though they had no word for “abortion,” had herbal methods that served as abortifacients, and women’s reproductive decisions were generally left to individual women. They used methods like black root and cedar root, but were affected by later colonial rule, which at times regulated or banned abortions. Since Native American reservations have their own laws, present-day activists have suggested that abortion services could be provided on reservations in states that now ban abortion. However, many Indigenous advocates feel that proponents of this potential option have not consulted with the Indigenous people themselves, who have long suffered from a dearth of adequate health care. 

Pre-Abolition America

Enslaved women frequently sought to control whether they added to the labor force of their enslaver, one primary method being the termination of pregnancies through medicinal herbs. Enslaved women on cotton plantations chewed cotton root to prevent pregnancy or induce abortion. Following the abolition of slavery, Black midwives, who had previously held space in medical practices regarding women’s bodies, were largely excluded from their practice by male gynecologists who considered themselves experts in their fields and who decried midwifery as unsafe and ineffective. However, these gynecologists themselves had non-consensually experimented with a variety of procedures on enslaved Black women, causing excruciating pain and suffering. 

19th-Century United States

In the United States from approximately 1840 to 1880, abortion was socially constructed as an issue of the loss of fetal lives, prompting harsh restrictions on the procedure. This reversed the previous practice of classifying abortion before quickening as acceptable, fetuses began to be considered the same as children. The moral panic surrounding depopulation served as a basis for this sudden change: In the United States, doctors noted the high prevalence of abortion procedures in upper-middle class white, Protestant women, and the high birth rates in immigrant communities. Wishing to counteract this trend, doctors not only cried out for the criminalization of abortion, but called on lawmakers and religious leaders to declaim the immorality of the procedure.

20th-Century Sweden

In Sweden, the topic of abortion was socially constructed in the opposite manner: fear of abortion was centered around the maternal health risks of the procedure, rather than the loss of fetal lives, as in the United States. As such, Sweden focused on promoting safe, legal abortions. Sweden, too, invoked nativist claims, but instead cited fear of the depopulation of the working class. If this population’s birth rate fell significantly, immigrants would rush in to fill the jobs needed to sustain the labor force. However, Sweden’s construction of the problem relied on the notion that should abortion be legalized, white working-class women would be free from the burden of many children and thus able to enter the workforce, essentially keeping minority groups out of the workforce and guaranteeing opportunities for the white working class.

20th-Century Europe

Notably, the Soviet Union in 1920 legalized abortions during the first trimester to give women equal status in society, but recriminalized the procedure under Stalin in 1936. 

This restriction was repealed in 1955, and other socialist countries followed the Soviets’ lead. In the 1960s and 1970s, European countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and France enacted legislation permitting abortion, typically for pregnancies within the first trimester.

Mid-20th-Century United States

Support for abortion rights could be found in unlikely places pre-Roe v. Wade. In 1967, California Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a bill into law that permitted abortion until 20 weeks of pregnancy for a variety of reasons including rape, incest, and the physical or mental health of the mother, a liberal law at the time. Evangelical leadership did not formally oppose abortion until the late 1970s, with Catholics leading the fight against abortion until then. Abortion only became a prominent political issue for evangelicals when conservative political activist Paul Weyrich used abortion to inspire grassroots evangelical involvement in politics. By the time Reagan became president in 1981, “pro-life” voters had become a key constituency in the party that could not be ignored. 

Human Rights Arguments

Notable is the shifting rhetoric surrounding abortion. According to a Guttmacher Institute article on recent changes to abortion law, the recent expansion of abortion worldwide “has occurred against a backdrop of human rights advocacy,” in which the argument for women’s rights is at the forefront. Findings suggest that there is an irreversible trend toward more liberal perspectives on abortion internationally, in particular due to the use of human rights-based arguments that posit that women should have control over their bodies. The U.N. has remained neutral in the debate over whether abortion should be legalized, effectively leaving it to individual countries to decide. However, despite increasingly widespread support for abortion, countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador have imposed greater restrictions on abortion.

20th-Century Ireland

Ireland during the 20th century aimed to set itself apart from increasingly pro-choice sentiments and in 1983 voters approved a constitutional ban on abortion. Though many Irish women traveled to obtain abortion procedures, and many likely died from miscarriages in Ireland, one famous case occurred in 1992 when a 14-year-old rape victim was not allowed an abortion and was prohibited from leaving the country to obtain one. Public backlash grew, and in 2013 abortion was permitted in cases of protecting the mother’s health. Eventually, in 2018, the constitution was re-amended to allow abortions through the first trimester.

U.S. Today

The Supreme Court’s June 24 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization took away the constitutional right to an abortion that had been protected in the United States since 1973. It left the regulation of abortion up to the states, many of which have since passed legislation restricting or banning abortion. Anti-abortion activists and some leading Republicans have spoken openly about passing a nationwide abortion ban the next time the GOP controls the White House and both houses of Congress, which could be as soon as 2025. Meanwhile places like Illinois, surrounded by states with abortion restrictions in place, will likely become sanctuary states for those seeking abortions. Activists and lawmakers are attempting to develop interventions and legislation that will protect women’s right to abortions. 

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