A 5th century BCE silver coin from Cyrene, showing part of a silphium plant. Photo from Expeditions Magazine 34 (1992).
In their accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion, all four of the canonical new Testament gospels include a scene in which Jesus stumbles under the weight of the cross and falls. In response, his Roman guards pull a man out of the crowd and compel him to carry it the rest of the way.
This may seem like a strange way to introduce a blog post on the practice of abortion in antiquity, but stay with me. I mention it more for the man than the story, and more specifically, for the man’s home town. His name was Simon, and he came from the North African town of Cyrene. Cyrene was not large, but it was famous throughout the Mediterranean world for its primary export—an herb called silphium that was reputed to be the safest and most effective contraceptive and abortifacient available. According to the Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus, drinking the juice from a chickpea-sized piece of silphium monthly would “not only prevent conception but destroys any already existing” (Riddle 1999).
Silphium grew only on the Mediterranean-facing hillsides surrounding Cyrene, and proved impossible to cultivate agriculturally. Demand outstripped supply, and by Jesus’s time silphium had been harvested almost to the point of extinction. Writing around the same time, Pliny the Elder said the price of silphium had surpassed its weight in silver, and by the 3rd or 4th century CE, it could no longer be found, making it the first species extinction caused by humans in recorded history.
Of course, mentioning a guy from the town made famous by silphium doesn’t mean the Gospels were taking a position one way or the other on its use, but it does offer us a nice entry point into the discussion of abortion in the ancient world. Silphium was the herb of choice for those who could get it, but it was far from the only option for preventing or ending pregnancies in the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean world. Starting almost two millennia before Jesus’s time, texts and art witness to a diverse array of contraceptive and abortive medicines and practices.
some General Comments on Ancient Birth Control
People in ancient societies cherished, valued, and wanted children just like people do today, but there were also times when it was not right to bring a(nother) child into the world. To this end, women developed ways to regulate their fertility to ensure that they would be able to meet the sustenance and care needs of any new additions to their families. Women generally managed their reproductive lives and health care among themselves, with little involvement or interference from men. Most of the relevant knowledge was held by midwives and other learned women, whose traditions did not tend to be put down in text as often as men’s. We must assume, therefore, that the texts we do have represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of ancient contraception and abortion.
Why do I keep talking about contraception and abortion when this is a series on abortion? The line between the two is difficult to draw even today, and it was much more so in antiquity.
Today, the typical abortion is usually thought of as a highly medicalized surgical procedure, and this has been generally true for the past century or so. Recently, however, the identification of certain medications that cause abortions has revolutionized the practice (as described in this very helpful episode of Radiolab). This shift has brought the practice of abortion much more into line with the way it was conducted in the ancient world, where surgical abortions would have been dangerous and probably very rare. Instead, most abortion would have been handled early, through the use of pharmacological herbs and medicinal compounds. Because of how and when these worked, it’s not always clear whether we would classify them as contraceptives or abortifacients today—or how they would have been understood in antiquity. Basically, we call anything that prevents fertilization contraception and any intervention after conception abortion. This seems clear and tidy, except that the point of conception is hazy today and was far hazier in antiquity. Women in the ancient world may have begun to suspect pregnancy with a missed period, but they could not be sure until they detected fetal movement—sometime around the third month in most cases. This is where that divergence in ancient and modern concepts of conception becomes so crucial.
In his survey of premodern abortion methods, Eve’s Herbs, John Riddle covers a wide variety of birth control practices. Some are clearly contraceptive by anyone’s definition, including withdrawal during intercourse and lactation-induced amenorrhea (that is, a pause in ovulation caused by breastfeeding), while others are clearly abortive methods, such as late-term surgeries.
In the middle are a host of other methods that could have worked as contraceptives, abortifacients, or both depending on the case. Most of these involved herbal and/or other medicinal compounds, which could be prepared and administered in various combinations and forms. Some were taken orally—eaten, dissolved in water, beer, or wine, or brewed in teas. Others were used as pessaries (that is, vaginal suppositories). They could be used prophylactically or in response to suspected pregnancies.
They also worked by various biological mechanisms. Most common were emmenagogues, a term for any substance that stimulates menstruation. These can be used to ensure regular periods on an ongoing basis, but they also impede the implantation of fertilized eggs. Some 40–60% of fertilized eggs do not implant naturally and leave the uterus with the next menstrual cycle anyway, according to UCSF Medical Center and the Gutmacher Institute. Emmenagogues simply ensure this result when pregnancy is not wanted. Other treatments may have worked as spermicides or by forcing the uterine muscles to contract.
The herbs and other substances used varied depending on local availability and pharmacological practices, and many mentioned in texts have been discovered to have abortifacient properties when tested in modern laboratories. Riddle’s list includes silphium, of course, along with pomegranate skin, pennyroyal, artemisia, rue, Queen Anne’s lace, myrrh, squirting cucumber, juniper, aloe, dittany, chaste tree, birthwort, asarum, willow, cypress, and various mints.
Let’s look at a few specific texts for examples.
The earliest textual evidence for pregnancy prevention comes from Egypt. The Ebers Papyrus, dating from around 1550 BCE but based on earlier texts, is a 20 meter long medical compendium with cases, treatments, and medical theory discussed under some 877 section headings. It covers every part of the body, including several aspects of gynecology and reproductive care. It contains instructions for a pregnancy test as well as an abortion in the “first, second, or third period” (the time frame is not entirely certain). The prescription involves applying a paste of acacia, dates, and honey to a pessary of moistened plant fibers. In modern laboratories, some species of acacia have been found to decrease fertility substantially in rats.
Recipes for contraceptive pessaries also appear in the Kahun Papyrus, which was written sometime around 1900 BCE. These utilize acacia as well as colocynth, which was also described as an abortifacient in medieval texts. It is potent, but also quite toxic if taken in too large quantities, meaning that some knowledge and experience would have been necessary to prepare it safely.
Evidence from Mesopotamia is rarer, but there is at least one medical text with a prescription to “cause a pregnant woman to drop her fetus” (BAM 246). The tablet is broken and much of the process is lost, but it seems to consist of three different concoctions that are ingested on subsequent days. They involve mixing herbs and crushed lizards into beer and wine and are meant to be taken on an empty stomach. None of the herbs in question can be identified with any certainty, but one is mentioned as a drug that promotes easy birthing in other medical texts. Thus, it may have worked by stimulating the uterine muscles to contract, expelling the fetus.
Mesopotamian law collections also contain stipulations for cases of spontaneous, unintentional, and intentional miscarriages like the biblical ones discussed in the last post. These differ by time period and ruling polity, but most do not treat a fetus as equivalent to a child or adult person. However, one law collection from the Middle Assyrian period (15th–13th century BCE) commands the death penalty for any woman who procures or causes her own abortion (Middle Assyrian Law A 53). Further, her corpse must be impaled on a stake and never buried. This was not the majority position among ancient Mesopotamian polities, but it does demonstrate that they could clearly articulate bans on abortion when they wanted to.
Greece and Rome
Greece and Rome provide much more textual evidence for all areas of reproductive medicine, but they are way out of my wheelhouse, disciplinarily speaking. Nevertheless, I can sketch out some characteristics in broad strokes.
Greek and Roman writers held different positions on abortion, but it is clear they were regularly practiced and well-known. Aristotle, for example, supports the use of induced abortion as a means of limiting family size, while Pliny the Elder opposes it as a rule.
The herbal and pharmacological treatments mentioned above occur often in medical texts, identified as contraceptives, abortifacients, or “menstrual regulators.” In addition, physicians including Hippocrates and Galen recommend strenuous exertion or jumping up and down to cause abortion by inducing premature labor. The Hippocratic work Nature of the Child says that a woman early in pregnancy should “jump up and down, touching her buttocks with her heels at each leap, for seven times,” at which point the seed should fall out onto the ground.
Perhaps the most famous example of a ban on abortion, the Hippocratic Oath, turns out not to be one on closer investigation. The Latin translation of the oath that predominated for centuries in Europe included a blanket prohibition on abortion. The original Greek, however, especially in the earliest manuscripts, read differently: “I will not give a woman a pessary for the purpose of inducing an abortion.” Hippocrates and his followers knew both oral and vaginal methods of birth control, so why the distinction? A likely explanation comes from Soranus’s treatise on gynecology, written in the 2nd century CE, where he says that the side effects and potential risks of pessaries are simply too great to support their use. thus, the oath seems to have been originally about the safety of abortions rather than their permissibility.
We do not have any explicit medical or pharmacological evidence of contraception or abortion from ancient Israel itself, except for one biblical text that indicates knowledge of withdrawal as a means of preventing pregnancy (genesis 38:8–10).
Aside from that, there is also one biblical ritual that can result in the termination of a pregnancy in some circumstances, although it is not clear that it should be understood as an abortion text in the same way as the medical writings referenced above. There is no identifiable mechanism by which the ritual could cause a miscarriage or abortion medically, and within the logic of the ritual the power that determines the result is magical or miraculous, depending on how you want to define it.
The ritual, Numbers 5:11–31, is known as the Sotah, after the Hebrew term for a “wayward woman.” It is intended as a means of divining whether a woman has had sexual intercourse with anyone other than her husband, and to initiate it he need only suspect her of infidelity (in biblical language, when “a spirit of jealousy comes over him,” Numbers 5:13–14).
The jealous husband brings his wife to the tabernacle courtyard, where a priest conducts the ritual test. First, he makes an offering of grain provided by the husband. Then he adds dust from the ground to a bowl of sanctified water. He makes the woman swear an oath of her fidelity, writes its words on a scroll, and then scrapes them off into the bowl of dust and water. He gives the woman this “water of bitterness” to drink, and its effects provide a judgment on her guilt or innocence.
If she has been faithful, the potion will have no effect and she may go free. If she has had sex with another man, however, the “water of bitterness” will cause bitterness within her and “her stomach will distend and her thigh will drop” (5:27).
This is not the same wording as the accidental miscarriage law in Exodus 21:22–25, which says “if…her baby comes out,” and some have suggested that it refers literally to symptoms of the intestines and legs. In context, however, termination of the pregnancy is the only viable interpretation.
The term translated ‘belly” (Hebrew בטן) is anatomically imprecise, but every time it occurs in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) it refers specifically to the womb. Likewise, the term translated “thigh” (Hebrew ירך) is a common euphemism for the genitals, as when all of Jacob’s descendants are called יצאי ירכו “those who came out of his ‘thighs’” (Genesis 46:26). And finally, if she is innocent the text states that “she will be able to retain seed” (ונזרעה זרע; i.e., become pregnant, Numbers 5:28). The implication, of course, is that the physical symptoms described in the opposite case would entail not being able to retain seed—that is, infertility.
This is unlike the previous examples of abortion texts for some obvious reasons. It is not primarily intended to induce an abortion; rather, the abortion results from being found guilty of adultery. Second, there is no identifiable abortifacient involved in the process. Within the logic of the text, the thing that makes it work is the incantation (or the god invoked in the incantation).
As with other ancient Middle Eastern and biblical texts, the concern was not for the fetus’s rights for their own sake, Neither was it for the health, wellbeing, or autonomy of the woman. The concern was for the paternity rights of the father, whose patrilineage was threatened by the prospect that his wife had become pregnant by another man. This is why this particular ritual doesn’t come up much in modern abortion debates: the moral justification for the abortion is unsympathetic, if not entirely abhorrent, to both sides of the contemporary struggle over abortion rights. Literally no one today would argue that doubts about paternity provide sufficient reason for a husband to unilaterally procure an abortion for his wife.
Abortion is not a new phenomenon, and neither is the demand for it. There are times when people want to have (more) children, and times when they do not. Ancient texts show us that people have devised many ways to regulate their fertility and reproductive rates throughout history, and that they have debated the ethics of these practices for just as long. The Bible speaks less of contraception and abortion than do texts that have been found in the areas surrounding ancient Israel, and in different terms. Its ethical concerns are foreign in many ways to the lines of the contemporary debate, yet they also circle around key issues that still drive political discourse and activity today: the roles of women in society, the purpose of reproduction, and who gets to make decisions about it.
On our next stop: the modern political fight over abortion inlight of the Bible’s extreme unclarity about it.
Biggs, Robert D. “Conception, Contraception, and Abortion in Ancient Mesopotamia.”
Kapparis, K. A. Abortion in the ancient world. Duckworth classical essays. London: Duckworth Academic, 2002.
Riddle, John M. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.