In 1955, the anthropologist George Devereux demonstrated that abortion has been practised in almost all human communities from the earliest times.1 The patterns of abortion use, in hundreds of societies around the world since before recorded history, have been strikingly similar. Women faced with unwanted pregnancies have turned to abortion, regardless of religious or legal sanction and often at considerable risk.2 Used to deal with upheavals in personal, family, and community life, abortion has been called “a fundamental aspect of human behaviour”.3
In primitive tribal societies, abortions were induced by using poisonous herbs, sharp sticks, or by sheer pressure on the abdomen until vaginal bleeding occurred. Abortion techniques are described in the oldest known medical texts.2 The ancient Chinese and Egyptians had their methods and recipes to cause abortion, and Greek and Roman civilizations considered abortion an integral part of maintaining a stable population. Ancient instruments, such as the ones found at Pompeii and Herculaneum, were much like modern surgical instruments. The Greeks and Romans also had various poisons administered in various ways, including through tampons.
Socrates,4 Plato and Aristotle2 were all known to suggest abortion. Even Hippocrates, who spoke against abortion because he feared injury to the woman, recommended it on occasion by prescribing violent exercises.2 Roman morality placed no social stigma on abortion.
Early Christians condemned abortion, but did not view the termination of a pregnancy to be an abortion before "ensoulment", the definition of when life began in the womb. Up to 400 AD., as the relatively few Christians were widely scattered geographically, the actual practice of abortion among Christians probably varied considerably and was influenced by regional customs and practices.5