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Anthony Rogers
Anthony Rogers

Contraception And Abortion From The Ancient Wor...


The author discusses the validity of the claim that, in Antiquity, effective contraceptives and abortifacients were available, were widely used, and their use was responsible for the decline of population in certain periods. After reviewing the maneuvers and drugs used for those purposes, the author concludes that ancient physicians did not have at their disposal effective contraceptives and abortifacients other than those that acted mechanically. In view of the danger associated with the mechanical induction of abortion, the ineffectiveness of pharmacological agents, and the limitations of mechanical contraceptives, it is concluded that drugs and other means of inducing abortion and contraception had a very limited impact on population in Antiquity.




Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient Wor...


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Abortions were performed for numerous reasons: for family limitation, in cases of adultery, and out of a concern for health. For the last, Soranus argued that a uterus could be too small to accommodate a growing fetus, or it could have had knobby swellings and fissures (Gyn. 1.60). There only seems to have been disapproval for the practice, aside from denying the father an heir, when abortions were performed so that a woman could maintain her appearance (e.g., Ov. Am. 2.14).


According to certain religious prohibitions, women who had aborted were not permitted to enter Greek sanctuaries. It is unclear, however, whether this was for a miscarriage, abortion, or both. The terms for abortion in Greek and Latin are the same as those for miscarriage: phthora, diaphthora, ektrosmos, and in Latin abortus.6 There is only one explicit statement about exclusion because of abortion. A 1st/2nd-century bce inscription from Philadelphia (LSA 20) makes explicit reference to abortive drugs and contraceptives.7 Women were also banned from entering sanctuaries if they had given birth or were menstruating, so the pollution of abortion and miscarriage was likely to have been in relation to functions of the female body. Attitudes changed with the rise of Christianity. Tertullian, used abortion in his Apology, arguing that it was murder, to distinguish between the practices of pagans and Christians (see christianity). However, in his other works, he takes a softer stance, admitting that sometimes terminations might be best for the mother.8 The Teachings of the Apostles,9 the first Christian document to mention abortion, condemned it, as did the Letter of Barnabas (19.5). Christians regarded abortion, once the fetus was fully formed (forty days after conception), as the murder of a living being, which became the prevailing opinion on the matter.


Today, conversations around abortion in modern Christianity tend to take as a given the longstanding moral, religious and legal prohibition of the practice. Stereotypes of medical knowledge in the ancient and medieval worlds sustain the misguided notion that abortive and contraceptive pharmaceuticals and surgeries could not have existed in the premodern past.


Therefore, the medical historical evidence proposes a very different story from that told by official religious or legal texts. The fact of the matter is that good Christian women were indeed undertaking abortions and using contraceptives. Yet, wealthy and elite Christian women had not only recourse to the best medical knowledge of their era but also the privacy to undertake these practices without shame.


Reviewed by: Abortion in the Ancient World Nancy Demand Konstantinos Kapparis . Abortion in the Ancient World. London: Duckworth, 2002. viii + 264 pp. $62.00, 40.00 (0-7156-3080-6). Konstantinos Kapparis's topics in this book include methods of abortion, the beginning of human life, the doctor's role, the points of view of women and men, and the law. Appendices give a translation of Pseudo-Galen, Whether What Is Carried in the Womb Is a Living Being, and a discussion of the sacred ordinances of the Philadelphia inscription (LSA 20, second/first century bce). Kapparis's sources range from the standard ancient texts to modern novels, anthropological studies of modern Greece, the 1978 Abortion Act in Britain, and two women he knew personally who had abortions for no apparent reason. He says that his aim is to "bring wisdom to the modern world . . . from an era with a different view of [End Page 886] life, one that removed ultimate moral authority from Heaven and brought it to Earth" (p. 6).


Although Kapparis claims that he treats abortion within its ancient cultural contexts, his discussion of when human life begins suggests the inspiration of current abortion debate. While it was an intellectual topic, the identification of the beginning of life was not a question associated with abortion in antiquity, at least in classical Greece. There, the issue was rather when an infant became a "person," protected by the laws against homicide; this was not at conception, fetal movement, or birth, but ten days after birth when the kyrios (guardian, usually the father) accepted the child into the family (in the case of a freeborn). If the kyrios refused to accept the infant, it could be exposed without penalty (there is no evidence that unwanted infants were actively killed, as Kapparis claims on p. 69, except in Sparta, where the magistrates could order a weak or deformed infant to be cast into a ravine).


The history of birth control, also known as contraception and fertility control, refers to the methods or devices that have been historically used to prevent pregnancy.[1] Planning and provision of birth control is called family planning.[2] In some times and cultures, abortion had none of the stigma which it has today, making birth control less important.[3][4]


Birth control and abortion are well documented in Ancient Egypt. The Ebers Papyrus from 1550 BC and the Kahun Papyrus from 1850 BC have within them some of the earliest documented descriptions of birth control, the use of honey, acacia leaves and lint to be placed in the vagina to block sperm.[5][6] Another early document explicitly referring to birth control methods is the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus from about 1850 BC. It describes various contraceptive pessaries, including acacia gum, which recent research has confirmed to have spermatocidal qualities and is still used in contraceptive jellies. Other birth control methods mentioned in the papyrus include the application of gummy substances to cover the "mouth of the womb" (i.e. the cervix), a mixture of honey and sodium carbonate applied to the inside of the vagina, and a pessary made from crocodile dung. Lactation (breast-feeding) of up to three years was also used for birth control purposes in ancient Egypt.[6]


On December 5, 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued the Summis desiderantes affectibus, a papal bull in which he recognized the existence of witches and gave full papal approval for the Inquisition to proceed "correcting, imprisoning, punishing and chastising" witches "according to their deserts". In the bull, which is sometimes referred to as the "Witch-Bull of 1484", the witches were explicitly accused of having "slain infants yet in the mother's womb" (abortion) and of "hindering men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving" (contraception).[21] Famous texts that served to guide the witch hunt and instruct magistrates on how to find and convict so-called "witches" include the Malleus Maleficarum, and Jean Bodin's De la Demonomanie des Sorciers.[22] The Malleus Maleficarum was written by the priest J. Sprenger (born in Rheinfelden, today Switzerland), who was appointed by Pope Innocent VIII as the General Inquisitor for Germany around 1475, and H. Institoris, who at the time was inquisitor for Tyrol, Salzburg, Bohemia and Moravia. The authors accused witches, among other things, of infanticide and having the power to steal men's penises.[23]


Starting in the 1880s, birth rates began to drop steadily in the industrialized countries, as women married later and families in urban living conditions increasingly favoured having fewer children. This trend was particularly acute in the United Kingdom, where birth rates declined from almost 35.5 births per 1,000 in the 1870s to about 29 per 1,000 by 1900. While the cause is uncertain, the 29% decline within a generation shows that the birth control methods Victorian women used were effective. Many women were educated about contraception and how to avoid pregnancy. While the rhythm method was not yet understood, condoms and diaphragms made of vulcanized rubber were reliable and inexpensive.[40]


In 1921, after years of planning, Stopes and her husband Humphrey Verdon Roe opened the Mothers' Clinic in Holloway, North London.[51] The clinic, run by midwives and supported by visiting doctors,[52] offered mothers birth control advice and taught them the use of a cervical cap. Later in the same year, Stopes founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress, a support organization for the clinic. Her clinic made contraception acceptable during the 1920s by framing it in scientific terms and gained an international reputation. The Malthusian League opened up a second clinic shortly afterward, but admitted that Stopes clinic had been the first in the British Empire, although the League emphasised that theirs was the first scientific clinic where birth control instruction was given under medical supervision (the medical officer was Norman Haire).[53] These two clinics 'opened up a new period in the history of the movement aimed at the emancipation of women from their slavery to the reproductive function'.[54] Although the clinic helped few patients in 1921 'the year was one of the most important in the whole history of birth control simply because of their very existence'.[55]


The societal acceptance of birth control required the separation of sexual activity from procreation, making birth control a highly controversial subject in some countries at some points in the 20th century.[61] Birth control also became a major theme in feminist politics; reproduction issues were cited as examples of women's powerlessness to exercise their rights.[62] Starting in the 1930s and intensifying in the '60s and '70s, the birth control movement advocated for the legalisation of abortion and large scale education campaigns about contraception by governments.[61] In a broader context birth control became an arena for conflict between liberal and conservative values, raising questions about family, personal freedom, state intervention, religion in politics, sexual morality and social welfare.[62] 041b061a72


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