Abortion, which is the termination of a pregnancy before birth, has been practiced since ancient times. Over the years, laws and attitudes concerning abortion have changed and it has become as much a social and political issue, as it is a medical issue. The first record of an abortion occurred during the Egyptian era, around 1550 BC. There are a variety of references to abortion in Green and Roman classical texts. Aristotle believed that early abortion was not a problem. Aristotle’s belief was that a male fetus developed a soul at 40 days and a female fetus at 90 days, so if the abortion was performed prior to these deadlines it was not killing something human.
The Hippocratic Oath forbids the use of vaginal suppositories for abortions, possibly to avoid dangerous abortion practices. Other writings by Hippocrates showed evidence he believed abortion to be a safe practice and recommended practices such as jumping up and down to induce a miscarriage. There were also natural abortificants used during this time and throughout other periods in history.
The Romans believed abortion was immoral and unsafe. One Roman writer even went so far as to say that if a woman lost her life during an abortion, she would “… undergo the extreme penalty.”
The 1800s brought a variety of advances in the medical field. The American Medical Association lobbied for bans on abortion in the United States
and the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed a law against abortion in 1861. Abortion practices continued in the United States and were practiced by abortion providers, as opposed to regular doctors. Advertisements frequently appeared in literature for affordable abortion practices.
Attitudes concerning abortion began to change during the latter half of the century, specifically in France. Abortion began to be viewed as a means of family planning and a solution for unwed pregnant mothers. This change in attitude was due in part to the improvements in medical technology, making abortions performed by medical practitioners a safer procedure. In areas where abortion was still illegal or viewed as immoral, women turned to a variety of unusual methods to abort, including exposure to lead, sitting over a pot of steaming water, and inserting candles in the cervix.
The 20th century brought the invention of vacuum devices for abortions. The method used suction-aspiration and was practiced in Japan the Soviet Union, and China, before coming to the western world. Later in the 20th century, compounds were developed that could be taken in pill form to prevent conception or to cause spontaneous miscarriage without the insertion of any tools.
Abortion remains a hotly contested topic. It has been banned or restricted throughout all of history just about everywhere in the world. In the 1950s, China made abortion illegal, but the laws grew gradually more relaxed, until in the 1980s, the government legalized abortion for family planning. Abortion was illegal in India until 1971, when the government legalized the procedure in response to the number of women who died having illegal abortions. Abortion is legal in many western countries, including the United States.