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50 Random Facts About . . .

Abortion

  1. The term “abortion” is from the Latin abortus (ab- “amiss” + oriri- “appear to be born, arise”).b
  2. The Egyptian Kahun Papyrus (1850 B.C.) suggests crocodile feces either for preventing conception or as an abortifacient. In Arabic medicine, elephant feces were frequently recommended. The Ebers Papyrus (1550 B.C.) contains several recipes that “cause a woman to stop pregnancy in the first, second, or third period.” One recipe for a vaginal suppository includes combining the unripe fruit of Acacia, colocynth, dates, and 6/7 pints of honey and pouring the mixture onto a moistened plant fiber.f
  3. Modern Arabic women still take colocynth as an abortifacient, though one woman who took 120 grains in a powder died 50 hours later.f
  4. fetus Debates over when life begins are ancient and enduring
  5. While there has never been complete agreement about when a fetus becomes a person, the major sentiment in ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Roman thought was that there could be no living soul in an “unformed” and/or “unquickened” body and, hence, the law of homicide could not apply if a fetus was aborted before that time. However, other scholars, such as Basil, the bishop of Caesarea in Asia Minor (c. A.D. 330-379), called feticide murder at any point of development.f
  6. Aristotle suggests that the conceptus had a “soul” after 40 days from conception if a male and 90 if female (for a similar differentiation, see Leviticus 12:1-5 in the Bible). Later, Aristotle says that the fetus develops “little by little” and that one cannot make fine judgments.f
  7. The Stoics thought the soul came when the fetus was exposed to cool air, although the potential was present at conception. Plutarch and Tertullian both ridiculed that idea because babies born in hot climates or in warm rooms were certainly alive.f
  8. Ancient Hebrew religious law regarded a woman pregnant at 40 days after conception and, therefore, abortion before that could not be considered criminal.f
  9. There was an endless list of oral drugs to abort a fetus from before the time of Hippocrates (460 B.C.) and into the Middle Ages. A few examples include clover mixed with white wine, Edderwort mixed with vinegar and water, mountain rue, birthwort mixed with pepper and mint, white hellebore, shepherd’s purse, squirting cucumber, stinking iris, pomegranate, and even a poisonous fish the color of a hare.b
  10. Ancient physicians also used pessaries, or vaginal suppositories, as abortifacients. They were usually more potent than oral drugs and included substances like the juice of the wild fig, a “milky liquid” which caused irritation, soap-wort, myrrh, myrtle, lupine, cedar-oil mixed with water, wine, or hot oil. Physicians also recommend smearing on the uterine opening goose fat, mashed leek and celery, rose oils, pine resin, copper scum, boiled honey, sodium carbonate, and even mouse dung.b
  11. Some ancient pessaries were similar to Utus paste, a substance injected directly into the uterus as a method of abortion in Europe and the United States until the 1960s, but eventually condemned as unsafe. Use of Utus paste to terminate pregnancy, however, can still be found in many developing countries.b
  12. Ancient abortion methods included applying substances externally on the abdomen such as various ointments and creams, bruised corn boiled with vinegar, and boiled cypress leaves. Physicians, such as Galen, also recommended hot baths, blood letting, strenuous physical exercise, leaping, riding in a shaky carriage, carrying heavy weights, emotional shock, body massages with hot oil, or being vigorously shaken by two strong men.b
  13. Surgical abortion was well known in the ancient world though, due to lack of anesthetics and antibiotics, it was dangerous and painful. Celsus (c. 25 B.C.-A.D. 50) provides the most complete account of a dilatation and curettage (D&C) operation, which required placing one, sometimes two hands, into the uterus to straighten the fetus and then extracting the fetus with a hook. Ancient texts such as Diseases of Women, Superfetation, and On the excision of the foetus refer to a surgical tool called an embruosphaktes (“embryo-slayer”).b
  14. Ancient physicians clearly understood that abortifacients could damage the uterus, cause septic abortions, and generally endanger to the mother’s health. Ovid compares the dangers and wounds from war for men with the dangers from abortion for women.b
  15. Hippocrates alludes to abortion in his Hippocratic Oath. Some translators argue Hippocrates said he would not administer a woman “a pessary to produce an abortion.” Other interpretations suggest that Hippocrates actually said he would not “give a woman an abortive remedy.” In the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, the United States Supreme Court in 1973 dismissed the oath  as an incorrect application of a historical precedent.f
  16. Physicians such as Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79), Dioscorides (c. 40-90), and Pseudo-Galen (129-216) mention more “superstitious” abortifacients, such as crossing over the root of a cyclamen, the egg of a crow, a viper, or a stone bitten by a dog. Additionally, if a woman crosses the menstrual blood of another woman, she will have an abortion.f
  17. During the Middle Ages, abortion was tolerated because there were no laws against it. There were a variety of abortifacients, such as mixture known as a “cup of roots” and another called “A Cure for All Kinds of Stomach Aches.” A medieval female physician, Dame Trotula of Salerno, may have been the first woman gynecologist and administered a number of remedies for the “retention of menstrua,” which was sometimes a code for early abortifacients.f
  18. In Arabic society, the evidence of continuous uses of early abortifacients is abundant. When classical texts were reintroduced into the West via Arabic influence around the thirteenth century, Westerners had the knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman medicine as well as the superior knowledge regarding contraception and abortifacients from the Arabs.f
  19. During the Renaissance, abortion was still tolerated, though Renaissance scholars knew less about birth control and abortifacients than did their medieval, Islamic, and classical forerunners. Perhaps this is due to the move of medicine from apprenticeship to male- and theory-centered universities, the growing gap between physicians and midwives, and the desire for larger families.f
  20. The relative indifference of common law courts to a fetus changed in the 1600s in England when abortion after a fetus had “quickened” became manslaughter. However, any action before “quickening” that harmed the pregnancy was not considered criminal under common law in England and the United States.d
  21. Reports of attempted abortions by ingesting savin (oil from juniper bushes) were common in the early nineteenth century, as well as accidental deaths from savin overdose. Savin was the single most commonly employed abortifacient in the United States during this time.d
  22. Women in the first decades of of the nineteenth century consulted texts such William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine and Samuel K. Jennings The Married Lady’s Companion, which suggested releasing “obstructed menses” by bloodletting, bathing, iron and quinine concoctions, and black hellebore. Later in pregnancy, a woman could engage in “violent exercise, raising great weights, reaching too high, jumping, hitting the belly, and falls.”d
  23. Common abortive techniques such as “bleeding” might have served as a surrogate period. It was believed that bleeding from the any part of the body would have the same flushing effect on the womb that menstrual bleeding was known to have.d
  24. Joseph Brevitt’s The Female Medical Repository (1810) suggests “electricity” would “restore discharge,” an idea that would be picked up by later nineteenth century entrepreneurs who developed several contraptions designed to help “obstructed” women.d
  25. Thomas Ewell in his Letter to Ladies (1817) also suggests electricity around the thighs and included medically advanced procedures, such as internal douching with strong brandy, hot water, vinegar, wine, or strong brine--methods that were actually fairly antiseptic.d
  26. The phrase “taking the cold” was a common nineteenth-century euphemism for missing a menstrual period.d
  27. In 1820, the status of the fetus began to find its way into state statues, and between 1821 and 1841, both legislators and physicians sought to control medical practice and create stricter poison control laws. The first state to prohibit abortion was Connecticut in 1821.e
  28. Despite initial legislation, abortion rates in the U.S. increased from one abortion for every 30 births during the first three decades of the nineteenth century to one abortion for every five or six live births by the 1850s and 1860s, perhaps due to increased advertisement and commercialization.d
  29. Ann Lohman
    Madame Restell (1812-1878), portrayed as a wicked abortionist in the National Police Gazette, 1847
  30. Perhaps the most flamboyant and publicized abortionist during the nineteenth century was Madame Restell, whose real name was Ann Lohman. Though she was arrested several times, she had successful branch agencies in Boston and Philadelphia. Salesmen would sell her abortifacient pills and refer patients to her clinic.d
  31. It was common as late as 1870 for abortionists to pull an expectant woman’s tooth because the pain and shock of an extraction without anesthetic was thought to be an abortificiant.d
  32. In 1857, Boston physician Horatio Robinson Storer  (often considered the “Father of American Gynecology”) successfully persuaded the American Medical Association to petition state legislators for stronger regulations of  America’s ambiguous and permissive policies toward abortion.d
  33. By the 1900s, all states and the District of Columbia had enacted criminal abortion statues. Yet, during the century that abortion was a crime (1867-1973), millions of abortions were performed.c
  34. Early feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) denounced abortion on the grounds that it was a male tool for sexually exploiting women and avoiding the responsibly of supporting a family.e
  35. In 1902, the Journal of the American Medical Association endorsed a policy to deny a woman seeking medical treatment for complications arising from illegal abortions until she “confessed.”d
  36. During the Depression, when women might lose a job if they became pregnant, abortion rates particularly increased.c
  37. In the 1940s and 1950s, enforcement of abortion laws became more organized and systematic, though one million abortions a year were being performed, with nearly 5,000 women per year dying from illegal abortions.e
  38. In the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, the United States Supreme Court declared most states’ abortion laws illegal, and that women, in consultation with their physicians, have a constitutional right to abortion before viability without interference from the government.e
  39. Norma McCorvey
    Norma McCorvey's legal psuedonym was "Jane Roe" in the famous Roe v. Wade court case that legalized abortion in the U.S.
  40. Norma McCorvey is the “Jane Roe” in the Roe vs. Wade case. She has since become pro-life and is the founder of “Roe No More,” an organization that provides counseling for women seeking an abortion.e
  41. In 2003, there were approximately 42 million abortions per year worldwide, or 115,000 daily. This was a drop from 46 million in 1995.a
  42. In 2005, 1.21 million abortions were performed in the United States. In 2000, there were 1.31 million. From 1973-2005, more than 45 million abortions in the United States occurred.a
  43. Currently, 35 states enforce parental consent or notification laws for minors seeking an abortion.a
  44. About 37% of all abortions occur to African American women, 34 % to non-Hispanic Caucasian women, 22% to Hispanic women, and 8% to other races (The small overlap between racial categories create a total of 101%). Approximately 50% of women who obtain an abortion are younger than 25. Women who have never married obtain two-thirds of all abortions. Younger women are more likely to request an abortion after 12 weeks.a
  45. Legal abortion may be performed using medical or surgical abortion methods. Medical abortions that include the drug mifepristone (RU-486) or methotrexate in early pregnancy offer more privacy and can pose less risk than surgical abortions. RU-486 (RU stands for stands for Roussel Uclaf, France, where the pill was developed) was approved in the U.S. in 2000.e
  46. Surgical abortions empty the uterus with special instruments. The most commonly used modern techniques are the dilatation and cutterage (D&C) procedure, the manual vacuum aspiration procedure, the mini-vac procedure, and the dilatation and evacuation procedure. Surgical abortion is 100% successful.e
  47. Intact dilation and extraction (IDX), or partial-birth abortion, has been federally banned in the United States.e
  48. Currently, Belgium (11.2 per 100) and Netherlands (10.6 per 100) have the lowest rates of abortion, while Russia (62.6 per 100) and Vietnam (43.7 per 100) have the highest rates.a
  49. Nazi Germany prohibited women considered “good stock” from obtaining abortions while permitting abortions for those who were “hereditarily ill.”e
  50. Advances in sonography and amniocentesis allow parents to determine the sex before birth, which seems to be leading to an increase of sex-selective abortions in some countries.e
  51. Fetal pain is extremely difficult to determine in early months of pregnancy because pain involves complex sensory, emotional, and cognitive factors. Many scholars suggest a fetus can feel pain around 28 weeks' gestation because that is when the fetus develops critical neural connections that assist in pain perception in the brain.e
  52. The term “Jane” was a used from 1969 to 1963 by women seeking an illegal abortion at Abortion Counseling Service of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, an organization founded by four women: Amy Kesselman, Heather Booth, Vivian Rothstein, and Naomi Weisstein. Over 10,000 abortions were performed through Jane’s underground work.e
  53. The 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey is a significant case in the history of abortion because of the modifications it made to the decision in Roe v. Wade. The United States Supreme Court reaffirmed Roe v. Wade, but the joint opinion opened the door for some state restrictions on abortion.e

-- Posted December 14, 2008. Updated July 30, 2009.

References

a In Brief: Facts on Induced Abortion in the United States. July 2008. Accessed:  November 29, 2008.

b Kapparis, Konstantinos. 2002. Abortion in the Ancient World. London, England: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.

c Kerber, Linda, and Jane Serron De Hart. 2004. Women’s America: Refocusing the Past. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

d Mohr, James C. 1978. Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

e Palmer, Louis Jr. 2002. Encyclopedia of Abortion in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.

f Riddle, John M. 1992. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. London, England: Harvard University Press.