BMCR 2003.01.35

Abortion in the Ancient World

, Abortion in the ancient world. Duckworth classical essays. London: Duckworth Academic, 2002. viii, 264 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0715630806 £40.00.

A thorough survey of the evidence for abortion in the ancient world, unprejudiced by a modern agenda, has been wanted for a long time, especially in view of the ongoing debate about the effectiveness of ancient contraception. Kapparis’ sources go from Hesiod to Augustine and include some fairly obscure ones whose introduction to English-language readers is very welcome. He provides a broad overview of the whole question, with some new interpretations of specific points.

Chapter 1, “Methods of abortion: science and superstition”, looks at the methods available in the ancient world, through drugs (administered orally, through pessaries or external application), surgery and other ‘mechanical’ means, and magic. The methods available may have been much the same as those that were on offer until the 1950s (31), but there is no doubt that they were all perceived, at least by men, as dangerous, and greater effectiveness brought greater danger.

Chapter 2, “When does human life begin?”, surveys the theories which are mainly found in philosophical texts about life beginning at conception as the Pythagoreans thought, at birth as Diogenes and the Stoics said, or somewhere in between, the ‘gradualist’ view which Kapparis thinks predominated. He shows that the answer to the question did not necessarily determine people’s attitudes to abortion; some who did not accept the foetus as a living entity still disapproved of abortion for other reasons. He notes that Exodus 21.22-4 in its Hebrew original and its Latin translation does not classify the causing of miscarriage (it is not clear whether the act is meant to be deliberate) as homicide, but the LXX version does, if it is in the later stages of pregnancy; this passage, which is the only biblical reference to abortion, had little influence on the attitude of the Church Fathers.

Chapter 3, “The doctor’s dilemma”, discusses the circumstances in which doctors found abortion acceptable, and the significance of the Hippocratic Oath’s apparent prohibition of the practice: “I will not give to a woman a pessary to procure an abortion”. Kapparis thinks that the Oath intended to ban all forms of abortion but was worded with sufficient vagueness to allow much scope for individual interpretation, so that doctors were still willing to induce ‘therapeutic’ abortions to save the mother.

Chapter 4, “The woman’s point of view”, considers why women risked the dangers of abortion. He sees the social punishment of women for adultery as much more significant than is usually acknowledged, e.g. through exclusion from activities outside the home, and domestic reprisals from their families, and therefore a strong incentive to use abortion to conceal extra-marital pregnancy.

Chapter 5, “The man’s point of view”, surveys the reasons men gave for objecting to abortion. Kapparis detects a change from the time of Augustus onwards in the perception of the foetus rather than the father as the primary ‘victim’ of abortion and relates this to Augustus’ pro-family legislation. He makes the interesting suggestion that Greek cities did not want a high birth-rate but Rome and Achaemenid Persia did, so they tended to see abortion as a threat to the state (this assumes that abortion was demographically significant, which is another question). He does not make much of the big advantage, from the father’s point of view, that exposure or infanticide had over abortion: it enabled the decision to be based on the child’s sex. If, as Kapparis states (143), abortion “was a women’s issue not a family issue”, then it is not surprising that male authors treated it with as much suspicion as they did other matters where women decided things for themselves.

Chapter 6, “Abortion and the law”, discusses whether abortion was illegal, concentrating on two legal cases: a fragmentary speech of Lysias, and the case of the “Milesian woman” reported by Cicero. The identification that Kapparis makes between Lysias’ “wife of Antigenes” and the “wife of Antigenes” who had a miscarriage or abortion in a Hippocratic text ( Epid. 1.2.19) is a tempting one, but the setting for the cases in the Epidemics is not usually Athens. Kapparis shows that abortion was not normally considered particularly offensive to the gods. He is certainly right that there was no general law against it before the time of Septimius Severus, and attempts to have it punished had to be made under interpretation of homicide laws. According to him, Severus and Caracalla criminalized abortion for the first time, and he analyzes the relevant legal texts carefully. They refer to a rescript exiling a woman for carrying out an abortion, but two of the three specifically say that it is without her husband’s consent; one in fact explains that it is after a divorce. I should have thought it more likely that the prohibition originally applied to this specific circumstance, reacting to an individual case (and it would be a logical concomitant of other legislation on the pregnant divorcee), as argued by Jane Gardner;1 the restriction on its application was no longer relevant in the 6th century and was therefore omitted in one of the passages in the Digest. This would mean, as Gardner says, that abortion by an unmarried woman, or by a married woman with her husband’s consent, remained unaffected by the law. Administering drugs to cause an abortion was made illegal around the same time,2 but that was part of an attempt to control the trade in dangerous drugs of various sorts.

There is a brief conclusion (“Attitudes to abortion: a historical perspective”), and two appendixes which give translations and discussions of important texts: Ps-Galen, Whether what is carried in the womb is a living being, and an inscription from Lydia (LSA 20) which Kapparis believes is influenced by the Hippocratic Oath.

One issue which perhaps deserves more attention is the lack of clarity of Greek and Latin terminology. In both languages there is not really any way of differentiating ‘abortion’ from ‘miscarriage’. There is some discussion of this for Greek in n.10 on p.246 (none for Latin), but it is an important point which deserves to be in the main text. Furthermore, the conceptual difference between ‘abortion’ and ‘contraception’ is not always the one which would apply today; the slave-woman in Hippocrates, Nat.Puer. 13.2 who is told to “expel the seed” by energetic leaping is surely represented in the text not as carrying out an abortion but as using a form of ‘contraception’ to expel something not yet considered a living foetus, hence the claim that what was expelled, whose description fits a recognizable foetus, was actually a “6-day embryo”. Kapparis quotes Aristotle (47) saying that the term ‘abortion’ does not apply until after the 7th day, and this appears to be the distinction used in some Hippocratic texts too.

An even more fundamental problem, which is perhaps too obvious to deserve much attention, is our total dependence on ancient male sources. Abortion is not an issue which Sappho or Sulpicia addresses, and the texts by ancient midwives that might have given a different perspective have not survived. Canace in Ovid’s Heroides and Callirhoe in Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe may provide plausible female voices but they are still male literary creations. The comment (130) that “ancient women were aware of the fact that … abortion could represent a rebellion against male authority” echoes a fear expressed by ancient men, in fact the most commonly expressed fear in this context, and was not necessarily an important consideration for women. Kapparis stresses that women must have been desperate to risk the dangers of ancient abortion, but the only way of getting any further insight is to retroject the experiences of modern women, hence a number of statements like “Parents in the ancient world were faced with similar dilemmas to modern parents” (161), which may well be true but run the risk of treating the whole process as a timeless one. The implication in places that “Greeks and Romans were just like us”, which is also found in the book’s publicity, may lead to some over-simplification.

A few small slips: it is not true that most Roman domestic slaves came from Africa or the Black Sea area (106). Legal adoption of babies was not an Athenian or Roman practice, as implied on p.155 (even if supposititious babies supposedly existed). Judith Evans Grubbs has turned into “E. Grubbs”. The references to Amores regularly leave out the book number. The compilation of Roman law is called Digesta not Digestae.

Kapparis has brought together medical, philosophical and other source material in a way only previously attempted, with limited success, by Enzo Nardi.3 The advances in women’s studies and gender studies since Nardi’s time, as well as the changes in legal and social attitudes to abortion in many countries since then, mean that it is a very different work from anything which could have been written thirty years ago. Kapparis’s suggestions about differences between Greek and Roman approaches, and about a general change in ideology which was not caused by Christianity, add to the ongoing debate, and his discussion of doctors’ attitudes will be of interest to all students of ancient medicine. Ancient abortion is not really susceptible to the semi-scientific discussion which has developed about ancient contraception, but Kapparis’s work should ensure that it receives as much academic attention as the other forms of ancient family planning.


1. Women in Roman Law and Society (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 159.

2. Digest

3. Procurato aborto nel mondo greco-romano (Milan: Giuffrè, 1971).