Abortion is ancient history: A medical story that dates back far more than you might think

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has given the abortion debate a new sense of urgency. But as cultural historian Ainsley Hawthorn writes, the history of abortion dates back thousands of years, belying the assumption that abortion is a fundamentally modern issue.

For many centuries before Roe v. Wade, doctors knew how to end a pregnancy

Protesters gathered in Union Square in New York City on June 24 to protest the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

This is a column by cultural historian Ainsley Hawthorn, who lives in St. John's. She wrote the series Apocalypse Then, which examined the issues of COVID-19 through the lens of the past.

The United States Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey has given the abortion debate a new sense of urgency.

There often seems to be an assumption, on both sides of the discussion, that abortion is a fundamentally modern issue — that our advanced pharmaceuticals and medical technologies are either, depending on your perspective, granting us greater reproductive freedom or allowing doctors to play God.

Abortion, though, has been practised since ancient times. A procedure for abortion is outlined in one of the world's oldest medical texts: the Ebers Papyrus.

The Ebers Papyrus is one of the main sources of our knowledge about ancient Egyptian medicine. Compiled in 1536 BC, it contains more than 800 remedies for ailments ranging from baldness to liver disease to crocodile bites.

The papyrus includes a long section on the "remedies one prepares for women," with 70 entries on treating conditions like uterine prolapse, leukorrhea, breast disease and irregular menstruation. The section begins with instructions on how to induce an abortion:

"To cause a woman to stop being pregnant … finely grind the fruit of acacia, colocynth, and dates in one pint of honey, moisten cloth with [the mixture], and introduce it into her vagina."

A reproduction of ancient brown paper featuting  hieratic Egyptian writing.
A page from the 1875 BCE Ebers Papyrus, a medical text that contains the world’s oldest written reference to an abortion procedure. (Public domain/Wellcome Collection)

Around the same time, Chinese physicians may also have been prescribing herbs and other medications to facilitate abortion.

A medical compendium called the Shennong Bencao Jing, written between AD 206 and 220 on the basis of earlier oral traditions, lists the properties of 365 medicinals. Five substances are noted to stimulate abortion: mercury, achyranthes root, flying squirrel and two species of insect.

Although the book wasn't put to paper until the Han Dynasty, its insights were attributed to the emperor Shennong, regarded as the father of Chinese medicine, who was believed to have lived in the 28th century BC.

Whether or not Shennong was a real emperor who tested most of his remedies on himself, as legend holds, many of the Chinese treatments — like the Egyptian ones — were probably in use by doctors, midwives and laypeople long before they were recorded for posterity.

A plant worth its weight in silver

In Rome, a plant called silphium was renowned not only as a culinary delicacy and a perfume but as a contraceptive and abortifacient.

Believed to have been some species of giant fennel, silphium grew only along a narrow strip of coastline in Cyrene, a Greek settlement in modern-day Libya. As the market for silphium grew, it became so important to Cyrene's economy that the plant was pictured on the city's coins.

By the first century AD, silphium was worth its weight in silver, and Julius Caesar had almost a ton of the stuff stored in Rome's official treasury for safekeeping. Demand for the plant had grown so high by that point, however, that it couldn't be sustained.

A woodcut showing an ancient illustration of a Chinese man
This is a woodcut of Shennong, legendary emperor and father of Chinese medicine, by Gan Bozong. (Public domain/Wellcome Collection)

Silphium was wild, and it proved impossible to cultivate. Its seeds may have been sterile, it may have spread only through underground rhizomes that couldn't survive transplant, or it may have been unable to thrive outside its coastal microclimate.

Whatever the cause, the result was that the Cyrenes could only gather silphium, not grow it. As the plant became more popular, local authorities put strict limits on the annual harvest hoping to protect it, but, between sheep grazing the silphium fields and pirates swooping in from the sea to make off with silphium plants, the crop gradually declined.

Eventually there were so few plants left that Pliny the Elder declared silphium extinct.

That didn't deter the Greco-Romans from ending pregnancies through other methods. Several alternative drugs were recommended, and tools were developed for a surgical removal, though surgery was attempted only when the woman's life was already at risk.

In its June 24 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found "that the right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation's history and tradition."

But abortion in fact has a long history on Turtle Island, the name that some Indigenous people use for North America. Prior to colonization, Indigenous women from many cultures used medicinal plants to regulate their birth rate.

A photograph of an ancient gold coin, which prominently features a large, layered plant with multiple leaves.
A gold coin from the ancient Greek city of Cyrene depicts the silphium plant, which was used as a contraceptive, abortifacient and condiment throughout the Roman world. (Trustees of the British Museum)

The Lakota ingested Western sagewort or the outer bark of the black elm to end unwanted pregnancies. The Shoshone and Navajo drank an infusion of stoneseed, whose name in Crow means "miscarriage plant."

In his 1998 book Native American Ethnobotany, medical anthropologist Daniel Moerman identified more than 100 substances traditionally used by Indigenous peoples as abortifacients.

Some Indigenous advocates have questioned whether the term "abortion" accurately captures the spirit of these practices, calling the word a "harsh and impersonal" way to portray an act of care for self and community.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its recent decision, a coalition of 34 Indigenous organizations and 227 individuals submitted a brief arguing that "no state should have the authority to determine the reproductive decisions of individual Native people," partly on the basis that abortion is a long-standing facet of comprehensive Indigenous reproductive health care.

In the 1950s, ethnologist and psychoanalyst George Devereux undertook an exhaustive study of abortion practices in 350 ancient and pre-industrial societies.

By the end of it, he had concluded that "abortion is an absolutely universal phenomenon and that it is impossible even to construct an imaginary social system in which no woman would ever feel at least compelled to abort."

While we can debate the morality and the legality of abortion, we have to acknowledge that the practice itself isn't some new, fringe development but an enduring human impulse — one that's been with us from time immemorial.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ainsley Hawthorn

Freelance contributor

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.

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