While the right to abortion has always been a contested topic, abortion is not a new practice and is as old as pregnancy. It is one of the oldest medical practices, evidence of which dates back to ancient Egypt, Rome, Persia, and Greece. Although abortion is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible, there are conversations in history about its prevalent techniques and practices. With medical facilities and technology not as developed as at present, abortion techniques and methods were very extreme in the ancient world. These methods were most of the time harmful to the woman. Some of these methods are still in practice around the world.
The ancient Egyptians, known for their advanced knowledge of medical science (something evident in their mummy preservations) practiced birth control and abortion for a long time, information about which is found for the first time in the ancient Ebers Papyrus and the Kahun Gyanaecological Papyrus.
The Ebers Papyrus is one of the oldest surviving documents on medical practice and the one of the first documents to contain information about abortion in ancient Egypt. It was purchased by German Egyptologist Georg Ebers in 1872 from a wealthy Egyptian in exchange for a handsome sum after having met him during an excavation in the vicinity of Thebes. The Papyrus derives its name from its purchaser as was the custom back then. Georg Ebers stated that the Papyrus dated back to 1553-1550 B.C., a fact that has been later confirmed by scholars at Oxford and Berlin who date it to the Eighteenth Dynasty King Amen-Hotep I. Ebers believed the Papyrus to be one of the 42 Hermetic Books of Ancient Egyptian Priests (precisely Book 40) a fact that Joachim disagreed with on various grounds. But none of them denied the fact that they had laid their hands on an exceptional treasure, extremely legible since it had been preserved quite well.
Written in an elegant Hieratic script with the use of Rubrics or red capitals in the beginning of the chapter and a paragraph, the Papyrus is 12 inches wide and 68 feet long. There is an anomaly in the numbering of the pages like page 27 is followed by page 30, something that Griffith of Oxford describes as a deliberate action to reach 110 pages considered by the Egyptians as the “perfect number.”
The Papyrus contain details on different diseases including the now extinct diseases. In most of the cases, remedies for different diseases are suggested and only when no remedy had been found, were surgical interferences recommended, that is, in extreme cases. The diseases discussed in the papyrus range from a simple ache to the most hateful and morbid diseases. It encompasses all branches of medical science from cardiology to gynaecology to obstetrics to many more. Due attention has been paid to even cosmetics with remedies for acnes, to remove wrinkles, have a smooth skin etc. Altogether 811 prescriptions are available in the Papyrus, some being extremely simple using only one ingredient while others being extremely complex involving a long list of ingredients.
KAHUN GYNAECOLOGICAL PAPYRUS
The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus, dating back to 1850 B.C. is the oldest medical text of Egypt if not the world and is also the oldest text to mention abortion. The papyrus was founded in El-Lahun, the name given to the thriving city of Medinet el Faiyyum, 60 miles south of Cairo in Egypt by the founder of the papyrus- Sir Flinders Petrie, a British Egyptologist in 1889. It was written in the Hieratic Script and had been first translated by the British Egyptologist Francis Llewellyn Griffith and published in 1898. Unlike the Ebers Papyrus, this one was available only in fragments which had to be painstakingly pieced together to form three registers of text with many fragments missing from each of them.
Currently preserved in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at the University College London, UK, the text in the papyrus is divided into 34 sections and each section deals with the diagnosis and the treatment of a specific problem. Surgical interferences are not talked about and only medicines and herbs and plants are suggested for treatments.
ANCIENT EGYPTIAN ABORTION METHODS
The Egyptians recognized some of the procreative relationships among the testis, phallus, semen, and pregnancy. They regarded the man’s contribution as a ‘seed’ that he planted in the fertile ground provided by the uterus. Semen was believed to originate in the spinal cord. The lowest extension of the vertebral column was called the sacrum because it was believed to be a sacred bone.
Abortion in ancient times was not as simple as it is now. Although, the rules and traditions around the female fertility has not changed much through the ages, women in Egypt enjoyed a considerable amount of equality with their male counterpart and hence they enjoyed a considerable amount of freedom than their male counterpart in terms of birth control.
According to Ebers Papyrus, an abortion could be induced with the use of dates, onions and the fruit of the Acanthus, all crushed together in a vessel with honey and then applied to the Vulva. This was capable of bringing about abortion in the first, second and the third period or trimester. Another recipe suggests the use of the unripe fruit of Acacia, colocynth, dates and honey. While colocynth and acacia do have abortifacient properties and releases lactic acid on being mixed together, fermented and dissolved in water, it is also dangerous to the female because of its toxic properties and might prove to be fatal to women if the quantities exceed beyond safe levels.
The terms “loosening” or “stripping off” could also mean abortion and a range of recipes are suggested for the same. The first of these include a fumigant made from emmer seeds, lower Egyptian salt and sw.thm.t plant. Other recipes include the use of onions, beans, juniper, pine products, beer, wine, potsherds of new earthen pots, oil/fat and date palms, some of which are mixed together in correct proportions to get the desired effect of abortion. Most of the times they were oral contraceptives or were supposed to be applied topically.
Kahun papyrus has survived in fragments but it provides valuable information on Egyptian gynaecological knowledge. . The gynaecological diseases mentioned in the papyrus are somehow connected to the organs such as eyes, teeth and bones etc. The treatments are also very interesting which includes fumigation, massage, drinking asses milk or eating its liver however avoiding surgical interferences at all stages. With regard to the contraception methods mentioned in the papyrus the first of the recipes suggest the use of crocodile feces which are supposed to be smashed up with fermented dough or paste and then used. There might have been two reasons for using crocodile feces: firstly it might have blocked the seminal flow of liquid at the os of the cervix or change the pH level and secondly, it decreases the libido of a male. Another reason for using crocodile feces might be very religious, something not untypical of the Egyptians. Seth is associated with the crocodile and the entire treatment symbolises Seth’s attempt to harm Isis during her difficult pregnancy. Another method of abortion suggested the use of saltpeter or soda which when fermented again affected the pH levels. This ingredient keeps featuring time and again in different places in contraception methods.
With regard to other papyri, the Ramesseum Papyrus and the Berlin Papyrus also discusses contraceptive and abortion methods. The Ramasseum Papyrus also talks of the use of crocodile feces just like the Ebers Papyrus and talks of the application of the contraceptive means through vaginal suppositories mostly. The Berlin Medical Papyrus dating from the Nineteenth Dynasty, approximately belonging to 1300 B.C. also lays down the use of emmer seeds for contraception just like the Ebers Papyrus. In addition to that, it also talks about the use of celery seeds, along with sweet beer and oil as a contraceptive.
Subsequent herbal abortifacients in Greece and Rome included the long-extinct Silphium. The Silphium and Pennyroyal were the most prized medicinal plants of the ancient world, sometimes used even today to induce abortions. However, they are highly toxic and not considered safe.
Abortion induced by herbs or manipulation was used as a form of birth control in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome and probably earlier. It was only in the 19th century that opinion about abortion underwent a change and it became a contested topic.
Modern researchers have found Acacias to be spermicidal. Scarring and pitting of bones in the pelvic region provided scholars further clues to the number of full-term pregnancies amongst skeletal remains from prehistoric times. Demographic research, laboratory studies, and scrutiny of ancient texts have given them new hints concerning the efficacy of ancient ‘family planning.’ As stated earlier, with Egypt being comparatively egalitarian in gender roles, the process of birth control as a method for family planning was practiced and there are evidences to suggest the same. The Papyri wouldn’t have contained information if such a thought had not existed back then and something of this sort had not existed in the contemporary society.