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When Did Abortion Begin?

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Nat'l Organization For Women Marks Roe V. Wade Anniversary At Supreme Court
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Question: When Did Abortion Begin?
Answer: Abortion is often presented as if it were new, cutting-edge, scientific--a product of the modern era--when it is, in fact, as old as recorded history.

The earliest known description of abortion comes from the Ebers Papyrus (ca. 1550 BCE), an ancient Egyptian medical text drawn, ostensibly, from records dating as far back as the third millennium BCE. The Ebers Papyrus suggests that an abortion can be induced with the use of a plant-fiber tampon coated with a compound that included honey and crushed dates. Later herbal abortifacients included the long-extinct silphium, the most prized medicinal plant of the ancient world, and pennyroyal, which is still sometimes used to induce abortions (but not safely, as it is highly toxic). In Aristophanes' Lysistrata, Calonice refers to a young woman as "well-cropped, and trimmed, and spruced with pennyroyal."

Abortion is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible, but we know that the ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Romans, among others, would have practiced it during their respective eras. The absence of any discussion of abortion in the Bible is conspicuous, and later authorities attempted to close the gap. The Babylonian Talmud (Niddah 23a) suggests a Jewish response, by a Rabbi Meir, that would have been consistent with contemporaneous secular sources permitting abortion during early pregnancy: "[A woman] can only abort something in the shape of a stone, and that can only be described as a lump." Chapter two of the Didache, an early Christian text, prohibits all abortion, but does so only within the context of a longer passage that also condemns theft, covetousness, perjury, hypocrisy, and pride. Abortion is never mentioned in the Qur'an, and later Muslim scholars hold a range of views regarding the morality of the practice - some holding that it is always unacceptable, others holding that it is acceptable up to the 16th week of pregnancy.

The earliest legal ban on abortion dates from the 11th-century BCE Code of Assura, and imposes the death penalty on married women who procure abortions without the permission of their husbands. We know that some regions of ancient Greece also had some sort of ban on abortion, because there are fragments of speeches from the ancient Greek lawyer-orator Lysias (445-380 BCE) in which he defends a woman accused of having an abortion - but, much like the Code of Assura, it may have only applied in cases where the husband had not granted permission for the pregnancy to be terminated. The Hippocratic Oath forbade physicians from inducing elective abortions (requiring that physicians vow "not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion"), but Aristotle held that abortion was ethical if performed during the first trimester of pregnancy, writing in the Historia Animalium that there is a distinctive change that takes place early in the second trimester:
About this period (the ninetieth day) the embryo begins to resolve into distinct parts, it having hitherto consisted of a fleshlike substance without distinction of parts. What is called effluxion is a destruction of the embryo within the first week, while abortion occurs up to the fortieth day; and the greater number of such embryos as perish do so within the space of these forty days.
As far as we know, surgical abortion was not common until the end of the 19th century--and would have been reckless prior to the invention of the Hegar dilator in 1879, which made dilation-and-curettage (D&C) possible. But pharmaceutically-induced abortions, different in function and similar in effect, were extremely common in the ancient world.
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