Abortion in Greco-Roman Society

The intention of this post is to record history, and not opine so much on why and how things were done. In the next post, historical sources from early Christianity will be provided on the same matter to show how Christianity, in this regard, distinguished itself from Greco-Roman society at-large.

Hippocrates (c. 460–375 BCE) was a pioneer of medical theory as well as the oath that all physicians swore by upon beginning their practice of medicine, and still do today from my understanding. A part of the Hippocratic Oath states, “I will not give to a woman [an abortifacient].” Abortion was rather common in antiquity, but Greco-Roman society wasn’t entirely careless regarding the unborn. In some cases, abortion appears as wrong as some believe it to be today. For example, in Athens, if a man died while his wife was pregnant and she aborted the pregnancy upon his death, she was charged to have committed a crime against her husband. The legal theory was that her abortion was criminal since the unborn child could have claimed the late father’s estate, so it was more a matter of property rights than a moral statute. Fast-forwarding closer to the advent of Christ, we see that not much had changed in this regard.

Ovid’s work Amores was first published in 16 BCE. In this work of poetry, Ovid mentions abortion in the early Roman Empire and the unborn child as a “burden” (Am. 2.13). However, in the next elegy, he refers to the fetus as “tender” and the destruction of it as by a “warlike method.” This particular elegy is against abortion because it robs society of her Caesars and other heroes. Furthermore, were this a common practice, Ovid suggests, there would be no humanity. He asked why women would “thrust and pierce with the instrument and give dire poisons” to unborn children, which explains how abortions were performed then (Am. 2.14). The methods of abortion were sometimes as risky for the mother as they were for the unborn baby and many women died from having attempted to terminate their pregnancy.

The Roman statesman, Cicero mentions a disdain for abortion similar to the Athenian law mentioned above. A mother had been bribed by alternative heirs to terminate her pregnancy, which she did. The mother, in turn, was condemned to death because she cheated the father of his posterity and the Republic of a potential citizen (In Defense of Cluentius 32). The philosophical school of Stoicism held that life began once a child was born. The breathing of a person outside the womb was the moment life began. This thinking allowed abortion to be acceptable, and Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BCE–65 CE), a Roman statesman and philosopher, was able to use this belief in the legal system. Seneca wrote that “unnatural progeny” were destroyed, which was likely a reference to an incestuous conception. He also wrote about drowning children that were born abnormal and weak (On Anger 1.15.2–3). The Stoic idea that unborn babies were not humans came to influence Roman law and only further justified the practice of abortion.[1]

Not all Stoics, however, consented to abortion being a good thing. Musonius Rufus (c. 30?–102 CE) saw abortion as inhuman. He saw its purpose as solely of enhancing the firstborn’s inheritance more than anything, which amounted to greedy motives. The lawgivers, he contended, functioned to discern what was lawful and good for the state, as well as what was bad and detrimental to it. The lawgivers, he recalled, urged the increase of the homes as something fortunate. So fortunate was the increase of the homes “that they forbade women to suffer abortions and imposed a penalty upon those who disobeyed” (Discourse 15). His discourse on this matter is likely a referendum against the common practice of abortions in the first century.[2]

Juvenal wrote that wealthy women would not endure labor, but would dull the pain with drugs or obtain an abortion (Satire 6.593–96). He also wrote how Emperor Domitian (c. 81–96 CE) impregnated his niece and then gave her abortive drugs. The niece in question, Julia, died in 91 CE as a result of the abortion (Satire 2.20–24). Here we see another example of why abortions were performed (incest). Wealthy people may not have just wanted to deal with it, so they terminated the pregnancy. However, there was another reason for terminating a pregnancy. Slave women might terminate a pregnancy to avoid bringing up a child in slavery.[3] The slave women would have had to have done this in secrecy because a slave’s child was the property of her master and not her own.   

In the second century, the Greek gynecologist, obstetrician, and pediatrician, Soranus of Ephesus, wrote his work Gynecology which explains how medical knowledge at the time treated various related matters. In this work, he distinguished between an involuntary abortion—what we’d call “miscarriage”—and the willful termination of pregnancy. He also distinguished between a contraceptive and abortive. The former was to prevent conception from taking place while the latter was intended to expel the unborn from the woman’s body (Gyn. 1.59–60). In discussing when an abortive was given, he noted that some would not give an abortive if a woman wanted to terminate the pregnancy due to adultery or because she wanted to preserve her youthful beauty—again, two reasons why abortions took place then. An abortive would be given if it were discovered that the woman’s body, according to the science then, were determined to be unable of birthing a child and thus risk the mother’s wellbeing. However, Soranus preferred contraceptives to an abortive as a preventative risk, because “it is safer to prevent conception from taking place than to destroy the fetus” (Gyn. 1.60). He then went on to list various concoctions that could be used as a contraceptive or abortifacient, but if used to terminate a pregnancy, serious side effects followed that posed significant risks (Gyn. 1.61–63). Yet, this didn’t prevent him from explicitly naming how one might terminate a pregnancy (Gyn. 1.64–65).

While more citations could be supplied to the ends of showing how common abortion was, we also noted a couple of pagans who were against it, but not for the same moral reasons early Christians stood opposed to the practice. Additionally, there were others who opposed abortion in antiquity, but Christians gave a clearer understanding of why it was wrong that distinguished them from others. In the next post, I’ll list early Christian sources on the matter itself.

[1] Cf. Justinian, Digest

[2] Caesar Augustus issued edicts in 18 BCE and 9 CE promoting childbearing, but he did not explicitly outlaw abortion (Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, 27).

[3] Dio Chrysostom (c. 40/50–110/120 CE), Discourses 15.8.

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