A Discussion on Abortion from the 2nd Century

In my research for my next short story, I ran across these little gems from Soranos of Ephesus. He was a 2nd Century Greek physician who practiced in Rome around the year 100 CE. Several of his writings still survive, most notably his four-volume treatise on gynaecology, and ‘woman’s illnesses’. As we can see from this passage, the discussion on the morality of abortion stretches long into the past.

“A contraceptive device differs from an abortion. The first prevents conception, the latter destroys that which has already been conceived. Let us be clear in that which destroys and that which prevents conception.


“Now, as for abortives, some people call them ‘expulsives’ and do not include any special drugs among them, but rather consider only physical actions such as violent movements or jumping up and down. Hippocrates in his ‘On the Nature of the Child’ mentions jumping with a hard spanking using the hand and fingernails to facilitate expulsion.

“On the other hand, some doctors reject abortion entirely, quoting another line of Hippocrates ‘I have never given a single abortive to one single woman’ Supporters of that belief add that the role of medicine is to protect and safeguard that which Nature gives life to.

“Still other doctors introduce a distinction: The refuse to give an abortion to women wanting one as a s result of adultery or to preserve their beauty, but they will authorize it when it provides a way to eliminate a health risk during pregnancy. Perhaps the womb is too small to handle going to full term or fistulas block the mouth of the vagina; or some other illness ravages the woman. These doctors say, though, they prefer contraceptives, since it’s less dangerous to prevent pregnancy than it is to induce abortion…..However, one should never detach the embryo with a sharp instrument. There’s too much risk of wounding the surrounding regions.”

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