The need for an abortion has been around forever, and it has been a necessity for women in almost every culture around the world. The first recorded evidence of a termination of pregnancy is from the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus in 1550 BCE. There is also evidence of abortions taking place in China around 500 BCE. Ancient times called for desperate measures. Abortifacient herbs, sharp objects, dangerous suppositories, abdominal trauma and electrical shocks have been used in order to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Abortion laws and the enforcement put behind them has fluctuated throughout the eras.
Abortion has been banned or restricted in the history of many countries around the world. In the early 1950s abortion was illegal in China. It wasn't until the early 1980s that the law was overturned and made abortion legal as a form of family planning. India criminalized abortion and those who seek or perform it from 1860-1971.
Many women died when seeking illegal abortions, so it was made legal in 1971 under special circumstances. Japan is known for its acceptance of abortion. Political lobbying groups have tried to overturn abortion laws in Japan, but ultimately failed. In 1957 Romania legalized abortion, and then made it illegal in 1966 when the national birth rate declined.
As a result, women turned to illegal abortions that caused over nine thousand deaths and left numerous abandoned children on the streets. The law was changed again making abortion legal in Romania in 1989. There was an intense public debate over abortion laws that went on for decades in Thailand. It was eventually made legal in 2006, however, due to very strict regulations there are approximately three-hundred thousand women seeking illegal abortions every year.
The attitudes towards abortion have varied across different cultures and changed over time. It is very much a social and political issue, as much as it is a medical issue. One thing we have learned throughout history is that when a woman is desperate she will try anything. Making abortion illegal will not stop it from happening.
Disclaimer: The methods discussed in this article are typically ineffective. The methods that are effective are extremely unsafe. DO NOT try anything on this list at home. If you are in need of terminating a pregnancy please seek the help of a licensed medical professional or family planning counsellor.
Warning: Reading this article will make you grab your uterus, clench your teeth, hold your breath and curl up into a ball. The thought of any woman doing one of these ancient abortion methods will freak you out!
Hippocrates is an Ancient Greek physician who is also known as the father of medicine, or according to Aristotle “the Great Physician.” He was not only a great physician, but also a great teacher. There are numerous texts attributed to Hippocrates. He practiced a wide variety of medicine including abortifacients and contraception. One of his books reveals that the Greeks discovered the connection between contraception and copper, and we still use it today in copper IUDs.
One of the texts attributed to Hippocrates revealed an interesting method. To prevent or end pregnancy this recipe was used -- mouse dung, honey, Egyptian salt, wild colocynth and resin. This mixture was inserted into the uterus. The possibility of infection is very high due to the mouse poo. If the septic abortion was not enough, the wild colocynth should take care of the job. Wild colocynth is a wild desert plant that made women throw up so hard they would miscarry.
An 8th century Sanskrit text recommends that women who want to end a pregnancy should squat over a steaming pot of onions. The onions were sometimes swapped out with different herbs or even human hair. This old wives tale has persisted over the centuries. According to Kathleen London, author of The History Of Birth Control, this is still in use in some communities in New York’s Lower East Side, however, it is also ineffective.
It may be an ineffective way to end a pregnancy, but the old wives may have been onto something else. The LA Times reported that vaginal steam baths have become a Southern California spa option. This is a centuries-old Korean remedy that is gaining attention in the modern world. Vaginal steam baths are also called chai-yok. It is said that this practice will reduce stress, clear hemorrhoids and regulate menstrual cycles. In Korea, many women steam regularly after their monthly periods.
One of the earliest recorded medical texts in history is the Kahun Medical Papyrus. The ancient text is now in fragments, however, modern interpreters have studied it in attempts to translate the old procedures that were used. Interpreters think the Kahun had a specific idea for an abortifacient, or an abortion-inducing medicine. Crocodile dung (poop)! According to the Huffington Post, the crocodile dung was made into a dough and inserted into the vagina. This was meant to operate both as a pregnancy prevention method and to induce a miscarriage.
Column three, line six of the Kahun Medical Papyrus reads, “For preventing [...] crocodile dung, chopped over HsA and awyt-liquid, sprinkle [...]”
It's possible that the crocodile dung was not inserted into the body, but melted and made into a liquid form. We may never know exactly how it was used, but we know that it was in fact used. As crazy as it sounds, the ancient physicians may have been onto something. Crocodile dung does have spermicidal properties. Today, spermicide can be used as a chemical product that comes in the form of jelly, foam, or cream and is a barrier method of birth control.
“If a pregnant woman steps over a viper, she will be sure to miscarry,” a quote from Natural History.
Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny The Elder, was a Roman scholar and the author of Natural History, an encyclopedia of natural science. Natural History is a collection of thirty-seven books in which Pliny describes the physical nature of the world in detail. His successful work was kept in libraries for centuries and provided the basis of education for most people. It also shaped scientific and medical theories for one thousand years, until the Middle Ages.
It was in 1492 when Pliny’s observations were challenged. It's about time! He is also the one who thought menstruating women killed bees. Now, most of his observations are concluded as false. His work still gives us an insight into the view of Romans in the first century. I wonder how many women actually went looking for a viper to step over in order to end a pregnancy?
The New York Times asks, “Why would a woman probe herself with a piece of whale bone? A turkey feather? A knitting needle?”
The use of surgical procedures was very limited in ancient times. Stabbing the vagina with sharp objects became a common practice for freelance abortionists. They would perform “embryotomies” by jabbing the fetus with different objects. Coat hangers, hooks, glass rods, curling irons, candles, knives, needles and even tree branches were used. It is stomach turning to think about the extreme measures some women took in order to end a pregnancy.
It is ironic that some of the ancient tools used for abortion are eerily similar to the tools used today. In ancient times, the tools were not sterilized before they were used. Women who used this method would often times get a life threatening infection. Dr. Daniel Mishell, Jr. of Los Angeles, remembers what it was like before Roe vs Wade. Women would come in with knitting needles and coat hangers still jabbed inside of them. He remembered an account of a bicycle pump being used, which sent a fatal burst of air to the heart.
There is a whole huge list of ingredients that women would drink in attempt to end pregnancy. Some of them were effective and some were not. It is the effective mixtures that are the most dangerous. Pennyroyal tea is one of the more famous abortifacients in history. Pennyroyal, or mentha pulegium, is a European herb. It is actually a type of mint, but it is also a very effective abortion drug. It is extremely poisonous. Using only five grams can be toxic. Due to the toxicity of this herb, it is very dangerous to use.
Chinese texts from more than five thousand years ago suggests the legendary Emperor Shennong prescribed drinking hot mercury after sex in order to kill any fertilized eggs. Throughout history and across the globe woman have been ingesting scary lethal potions. Some of them include gunpowder, lye, bleach, crushed ants, camel hair, lead, white phosphorus, copper sulfate, belladonna, mandrake, stinking iris, and an herb known as “prostitute’s root.”
Bloodletting is defined as the surgical removal of some of a patient's blood for therapeutic reasons. We can definitely say that an ancient abortion was anything but therapeutic. However, it did involved removing some of, or entirely too much, of a pregnant woman's blood. This is an insane medical practice that entails letting the patient nearly bleed to death. The result, she will miscarry after losing so much blood. The presumption was that bloodletting a woman would induce her menstrual cycle and abort the fetus. In reality it just made her much weaker.
Bloodletting was used to “cure” a number of illnesses in ancient times. This was used for thousands of years and presumably failed every time. The idea of removing the “bad blood” to cure an illness isn't too far out there though. They were just missing the very important step of replacing the bad blood with healthy blood. Today, we use blood transfusions, which will replace blood lost.
Today, we are given a long list of things we can't do when we are pregnant. It can be (okay... it definitely is) very annoying to feel so restricted. But, it is for the protection of ourselves and our unborn babies. In ancient times when a woman did not have access to any form of abortion they would resort to shaking, jumping and heavy lifting to bring on a natural abortion or a miscarriage. Some people believed in shaking yourself so hard that the embryos would fall out.
A text that was supposedly written by Hippocrates recommended a technique that became popular. It suggested for a woman to “jump up and down, touching her buttocks with her heels at each leap” until the embryo became “loose” and fell out. This technique was later named Lacedaemonian Leap. We now know that mild physical activity will not cause a miscarriage, however, if the activity becomes strenuous enough then it is possible to induce a miscarriage.
All the way into the 1800’s it was believed that a pregnant woman would miscarry if her tooth was pulled without any anesthesia. It didn't matter whether or not the tooth actually needed pulled, and it didn't matter which tooth was extracted. The woman would scream in pain and agony so hard that the fetus would abort naturally. This may have actually been effective in some cases, but it had nothing to do with the tooth. The woman would likely miscarry because of the pain.
Experts have known for a long time that during times of stress the brain releases hormones. One is called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH is the hormone in the brain that reacts to physical pain or emotional stress. This hormone is also produced in the placenta and the uterus of pregnant women and it will trigger contractions. Mast cells, best known for causing allergic reactions, are abundant in the uterus. When a pregnant woman is under stress, the release of CRH causes the mast cells to secrete substances that can cause a miscarriage.
As early as the 16th century, women observed that cows who ate ergot miscarried their calves. Ergot, or calviceps purpurea, is a fungus found on the stalks of grain. Women thought if it worked for the cows it would work for them, and it did, but not without dangerous side effects. The excruciating side effects were called ergotism, also known as St. Anthony's fire. After investing ergot, women would experience a burning sensation through their limbs. This was due to blood constriction and often led to gangrene.
This poisonous fungus caused numerous awful symptoms. With the burning came itching, vomiting and diarrhea. The stomach would contract causing sever cramping. It can also cause seizures and psychosis and eventually death. Some historians believed ergot played a part in the Salem witch hunt of 1692. The women who developed peculiar or psychosis behaviors were thought to be witches, but they may have just ingested ergot. This ancient abortion method was common and effective in terminating a pregnancy, but the effective abortion methods were also the most dangerous ones.
The practice of squeezing a woman's abdomen so tight that it would “expel what was being conceived” goes way back to Ancient Rome. It was used by numerous different cultures. Hippolytus of Rome, who was also the first anti-Pope, wrote in the early third century. He wrote about women binding their waists so tightly that it would induce miscarriage. Often times they would use a girdle or corset so tight it would squeeze their rib cage together. This method was also used by the Maori culture. Maori are the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Abdominal trauma during pregnancy is a major contributor to maternal mortality even today. It is usually unintentional in this day in age. According to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 2007, motor vehicle accidents are responsible for about two-thirds of maternal trauma cases in developed countries. It takes a severely hard blow to harm the baby and/or mother. In ancient times, women who used this practice were high risk for severely injuring themselves in the process.
Everyone has heard the term “eating for two” when referring to pregnant women. It's important to give your body the proper nutrients when carrying a child. In ancient times when a woman did not want to carry a child they would simply starve themselves. It is less invasive than many other options that were available at the time. When a woman who should be eating for two simply stops eating they will eventually starve to death. Naturally, the fetus will starve to death first. The woman waits for this to happen and then is able to replenish her own body.
This “ancient” method isn't as ancient as we might think. It was shocking to see how many people have posted on social forums asking if they will miscarry by starving themselves. In 2004 a woman, or more likely a young girl, posted online that she starved herself for five days and intensely exercised for two whole days to induce a miscarriage.
Oil of tansy was commonly used as an ancient abortion technique. The Cider House Rules, by John Irving, gives a chilling detailed account of a woman who had an abortion. The well researched novel tells the story of a doctor who is trying to save a woman after too many tansy oil miscarriages. The woman's abdomen was filled with blood. The doctor was trying to stitch her up her uterus, but the stitches were pulled through the tissue. The doctor described the texture of the uterus as feeling like “soft cheese.” His finger passed through her intestine as easily as it would in gelatin.
Tansy is a plant and the name “tansy” comes from the Greek word “athanasia,” which means “immortality.” Tansy was thought to confer immortality, so it was used for embalming. Tansy is used for a number of digestive tract problems, but too much tansy can rot internal organs.
The Female Medical Repository is a book that was published in 1810 by Joseph Brevitt. He recommended that electricity could “restore discharge” and induce an abortion. Just seven years later a writer named Thomas Ewell suggested that a shot of electricity around the thighs may shock the fetus into aborting. This was revealed in his 1817 Letter to Ladies. However, the first real rotation electric motor wasn't invented until May of 1834.
It is unclear how many, or if any fetuses actually faced the abortive equivalent to the electric chair. But, we do know that the idea was thrown around on multiple occasions, and it is very possible that it was done without ever being recorded. By 1888 electric shocks weren't just available to abort unwanted fetuses. They began using electric chairs to execute criminals. The first electric chair was invented in New York as a more humane execution method.
Opium is an ancient abortion method that is unfortunately still used in some parts of the world today. Abortions are illegal in the Islamic Republic, which is forcing many Pakistani women to seek out last resort measures. Rozina has been performing induced abortions in and around her village for 30 years. Her supplies are not hard to find at any local market. All she needs is some broom straws and opium. She covers the tip of boiling broom straws with opium and inserts it into the uterus. The result is the bursting of the gestation sac.
Rozina explains, “The opium acts like an explosive and burns the sac.”
After a woman opts for an opium bomb abortion, she hopes to see bleeding. If there is bleeding within the hour of the procedure, then the abortion was successful. If the opium bomb is not successful, that is when the coat hangers come out. Some of these “ancient” methods aren't so ancient after all.
Sources: Huffington Post, WebMD, LA Times, pbs.org, NY Times, ThoughtCatalog