Abortion is ancient history: A medical story that dates back far more than you might think

Linda Rider
Protesters collected in Union Sq. in New York Metropolis on June 24 to protest the U.S. Supreme Court choice that overturned Roe v. Wade. (Spencer Platt/Getty Pictures)

This is a column by cultural historian Ainsley Hawthorn, who lives in St. John’s. She wrote the series Apocalypse Then, which examined the problems of COVID-19 via the lens of the past.

The United States Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and Prepared Parenthood v. Casey has given the abortion discussion a new sense of urgency.

There usually appears to be to be an assumption, on the two sides of the discussion, that abortion is a fundamentally modern issue — that our superior prescribed drugs and clinical systems are both, depending on your standpoint, granting us higher reproductive liberty or letting doctors to participate in God.

Abortion, however, has been practised given that historic occasions. A method for abortion is outlined in one of the world’s oldest health care texts: the Ebers Papyrus.

The Ebers Papyrus is a single of the most important sources of our understanding about historic Egyptian drugs. Compiled in 1536 BC, it incorporates more than 800 remedies for illnesses ranging from baldness to liver condition to crocodile bites.

The papyrus features a extensive part on the “treatments one prepares for gals,” with 70 entries on treating problems like uterine prolapse, leukorrhea, breast disease and irregular menstruation. The portion begins with recommendations on how to induce an abortion:

“To induce a lady to quit remaining pregnant … finely grind the fruit of acacia, colocynth, and dates in just one pint of honey, moisten cloth with [the mixture], and introduce it into her vagina.”

A reproduction of ancient brown paper featuting  hieratic Egyptian writing.
A page from the 1875 BCE Ebers Papyrus, a healthcare textual content that includes the world’s oldest created reference to an abortion procedure. (General public area/Wellcome Assortment)

About the identical time, Chinese physicians may also have been prescribing herbs and other drugs to aid abortion.

A health care compendium termed the Shennong Bencao Jing, prepared amongst Ad 206 and 220 on the basis of earlier oral traditions, lists the homes of 365 medicinals. 5 substances are observed to stimulate abortion: mercury, achyranthes root, traveling squirrel and two species of insect.

Even though the e-book wasn’t set to paper right up until the Han Dynasty, its insights had been attributed to the emperor Shennong, regarded as the father of Chinese medication, who was believed to have lived in the 28th century BC.

No matter if or not Shennong was a real emperor who examined most of his therapies on himself, as legend holds, lots of of the Chinese treatment options — like the Egyptian types — were being probably in use by medical professionals, midwives and laypeople prolonged in advance of they had been recorded for posterity.

A plant worthy of its excess weight in silver

In Rome, a plant referred to as silphium was renowned not only as a culinary delicacy and a perfume but as a contraceptive and abortifacient.

Believed to have been some species of huge fennel, silphium grew only alongside a slender strip of shoreline in Cyrene, a Greek settlement in modern-day-day Libya. As the industry for silphium grew, it became so critical to Cyrene’s economic system that the plant was pictured on the city’s coins.

By the to start with century Ad, silphium was worth its body weight in silver, and Julius Caesar had pretty much a ton of the things stored in Rome’s formal treasury for safekeeping. Demand for the plant experienced developed so substantial by that place, nevertheless, that it couldn’t be sustained.

A woodcut showing an ancient illustration of a Chinese man
This is a woodcut of Shennong, legendary emperor and father of Chinese drugs, by Gan Bozong. (General public area/Wellcome Collection)

Silphium was wild, and it proved not possible to cultivate. Its seeds could have been sterile, it may have distribute only via underground rhizomes that couldn’t endure transplant, or it may possibly have been not able to thrive outside the house its coastal microclimate.

Whatsoever the result in, the outcome was that the Cyrenes could only gather silphium, not increase it. As the plant became a lot more well-known, local authorities put strict restrictions on the once-a-year harvest hoping to protect it, but, amongst sheep grazing the silphium fields and pirates swooping in from the sea to make off with silphium crops, the crop gradually declined.

Ultimately there had been so number of plants remaining that Pliny the Elder declared silphium extinct.

That didn’t discourage the Greco-Romans from ending pregnancies through other procedures. A number of different prescription drugs were being recommended, and tools have been formulated for a surgical elimination, even though surgery was attempted only when the woman’s existence was presently at risk.

In its June 24 final decision, the U.S. Supreme Courtroom found “that the correct to abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation’s background and tradition.”

But abortion in point has a very long historical past on Turtle Island, the identify that some Indigenous people today use for North The united states. Prior to colonization, Indigenous girls from many cultures employed medicinal vegetation to regulate their delivery amount.

A photograph of an ancient gold coin, which prominently features a large, layered plant with multiple leaves.
A gold coin from the historic Greek metropolis of Cyrene depicts the silphium plant, which was made use of as a contraceptive, abortifacient and condiment all over the Roman earth. (Trustees of the British Museum)

The Lakota ingested Western sagewort or the outer bark of the black elm to close unwelcome pregnancies. The Shoshone and Navajo drank an infusion of stoneseed, whose identify in Crow suggests “miscarriage plant.”

In his 1998 book Indigenous American Ethnobotany, medical anthropologist Daniel Moerman discovered much more than 100 substances typically applied by Indigenous peoples as abortifacients.

Some Indigenous advocates have questioned regardless of whether the time period “abortion” accurately captures the spirit of these techniques, contacting the phrase a “harsh and impersonal” way to portray an act of care for self and local community.

Just before the U.S. Supreme Courtroom rendered its the latest conclusion, a coalition of 34 Indigenous organizations and 227 persons submitted a temporary arguing that “no condition must have the authority to decide the reproductive conclusions of specific Indigenous folks,” partly on the foundation that abortion is a long-standing aspect of complete Indigenous reproductive well being treatment.

In the 1950s, ethnologist and psychoanalyst George Devereux undertook an exhaustive examine of abortion practices in 350 historic and pre-industrial societies.

By the end of it, he experienced concluded that “abortion is an definitely common phenomenon and that it is not possible even to construct an imaginary social system in which no woman would ever sense at least compelled to abort.”

Although we can discussion the morality and the legality of abortion, we have to admit that the observe alone is not some new, fringe advancement but an enduring human impulse — just one which is been with us from time immemorial.

Study far more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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