Abortion, A Historical Perspective

George Santayana tells us, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Since many anti-choice zealots (and indeed, unfortunately, all too many pro-choice individuals as well) labor under the mistaken impression that the controversy surrounding abortion is a unique byproduct of the technological age, a brief review of the history of abortion in antiquity may prove enlightening.

To be sure, the earliest expression of women’s control over reproduction was not so much abortion as infanticide. Recent excavations at the site of the ancient Middle-Eastern city of Ashkelon, for example, revealed dozens of newborn infant skeletons found in a sewer behind a brothel. That this find is mute testimony to ancient women’s having made difficult and painful choices is clear. That these choices were the product of a terrible economic and societal necessity can also readily be inferred.

In ancient Greece, infanticide committed by exposing unwanted newborns to the elements was a common method of birth control, though history teaches that the choice here was seldom that of the woman. By way of example, in a papyrus fragment recovered from a trash heap in post-Alexandrian Egypt, a well-to-do Greek merchant wrote to his wife while he was away on business, “If the child you are carrying turns out to be a son, call him Hephaestion; if it is a girl, expose it.” Early Greek commentators on the society of the ancient city-state of Sparta also report that all newborn infants were required to spend their first night out of doors. Undoubtedly, this must have resulted in the deaths of countless children, while the intent of the practice was obviously to restrict access to the limited resources of the community to those physically capable of survival in what was then an incredibly harsh world.

While we may well consider these ancient customs barbarous from our modern perspective, they were evidence of the exercise of deliberate reproductive choice. One of the unintended consequences of civilization was a drop in infant mortality rates that could (and in antiquity, often did) result in disastrous overpopulation and resultant mass starvation. This primitive but societally sanctioned custom of infanticide was thus nothing less than the exercise of a perceived right (and indeed, necessity) of conscious reproductive planning.

Ancient Rome carried on this practice of infanticide, though the “choice” here was exercised almost exclusively by men. Under the rigorously patriarchal society of the Roman Republic, the paterfamilias had the unfettered power of life and death over all members of his household. During this period, in addition to infanticide, a crude form of “abortion on demand” was utilized whereby men frequently threw pregnant slave women or concubines down flights of stairs in order to induce abortions.

Paradoxically, the world of ancient Greece, which accepted infanticide without much apparent reservation, provided a philosophical foundation and framework for defining the inception of human life. The philosopher Aristotle developed a rough “trimester” system of analyzing the development of the human fetus: he saw the first third of the human gestation period as one in which the fetus was essentially a parasitic organism that fed off the woman’s body. In the middle third of development, the fetus was likened to an animal: alive and sentient, but without intellect or soul. Only in the final third stage of development did Aristotle see the fetus as being imbued with what the Greeks called the psyche, best translated as “spirit.” This Aristotelian trimester system lives on to this very day, forming the core of the Supreme Court’s analysis in Roe v Wade.

If we fast-forward to 1968, we can read in Pope Paul’s encyclical Humanae Vitae an implicit and sudden rejection of the Aristotelian model, which had existed and had been accepted virtually unchanged for over two millennia. While this encyclical was aimed at clarifying the Church’s position on the (relatively) recent innovation of artificial contraception, it explicitly referred also to abortion. Since the Pope found doctrinally unacceptable the notion of human choice and action interfering with the biological mechanism of conception, his logic mandated a similar condemnation of abortion. Having started with the premise that contraception (other than through the so-called “rhythm method,” later cynically appropriately dubbed “Vatican Roulette”) violated natural and hence ecclesiastical law, then a fortiori all forms of abortion, regardless of the circumstances, also violated church precepts.

Unfortunately, Humanae Vitae resulted in the unceremonious sweeping away of centuries of accepted philosophical thought. If human life is not seen to begin until some latter part of fetal development, as in the Aristotelian model, then a woman’s decision to use contraception or to choose an abortion prior to the third trimester cannot be linked to the destruction of life. But the Pope’s goal in the encyclical was to deter women from exercising conscious control over their reproductive systems: if Western philosophy needed to be rewritten to achieve that end, then so be it.

So what can women of today learn from this historical lesson? First, that conscious and deliberate choice over reproduction has been a part of human history as far back as archaeologists can delve; next, that the philosophical underpinnings of modern reproductive rights are far older than the repressive and retrograde religious dogma of the late twentieth century; and finally that only the methods of choice, and not the goals, aspirations or desires of civilized women, are the true recent innovations.