Physical/Mechanical Methods:


Soranus (Bk.I. Ch. XIX) tells his reader about several mechanical methods to induce abortion. These include vigorous exercise, carrying abnormally heavy weights, leaping violently (also recommended by Hippocrates), and a process of being shaken by wild or even controlled animals, as in taking a carriage ride driven over rough terrain. Soranus (Bk.I, Ch. XIX) prescribes walking energetically for 30 days after conception, followed by violent exercises to abort the fetus. Although these methods seem unnecessarily violent and even painful compared to today's methods, they were believed to be effective means of abortion during the ancient world. (We do not know, of course, how many women, if any, actually used such methods.)


An emmenagogue: menstruation-producing herb, Mercury plant

Methods Using Drugs or Herbs:


Several methods of abortion which rely upon herbs are evident in the texts provided by Soranus and Dioscorides. In order to abort the fetus during the early months of pregnancies, Soranus and Dioscorides suggest dietary diuretics, laxatives with pungent clyster, and lupine beans, which are poisonous unless properly prepared. (Also, several recipes including the plant silphium are prescribed. Unfortunately, this plant is now extinct and its effectiveness can only be estimated through a distant relative of the species (Riddle). This relative seems to provide evidence for an effective abortifacient.) Abortifacients (link to glossary) can cause abortion before the middle of the second trimester of pregnancy. Any form of abortion after the second trimester was highly dangerous for the mother. Other drugs such as the squirting cucumber, black hellebore, pellitory, and panax balm are recommended for oral intake in order to abort the fetus. But exactly how does one go about orally or herbally aborting a fetus?




Soranus (Bk.I, Ch. XIX) suggests two methods to induce abortion: "use diuretic decoctions which also have the power to bring on menstruation, and empty and purge the abdomen with relatively pungent clysters; sometimes using warm and sweet olive oil as injections, sometimes anointing the whole body thoroughly therewith and rubbing it vigorously, especially around the pubes, the abdomen, and the loins, bathing daily in sweet water which is not too hot, lingering in the baths and drinking first a little wine and living on pungent food. "



The second method describes specific steps to be taken to remove the fetus from the uterus. First the womb must be separated from the uterus. In order to create the separation, empty the abdomen and purge it with warm and sweet olive oil as injections. Then bathe the whole body in sweet water, lingering in the tub, drinking a little wine first and eating pungent food. If at this point, it is not effective, then sit in a bath of linseed, fenugreek, mallow, marsh mallow, and wormwood. have injections of old oil, alone or with rue juice or with honey, iris oil, or absinthium with honey, or panax balm spelt together with rue and honey or Syrian unguent. If it is still not effective, then take a meal of lupines with ox bile and absinthium. Before abortion, take protracted baths, little or no food, use softening vaginal suppositories, abstain from wine, and be bled in large amounts. Then follow the procedures by having the pregnant woman shaken by wild animals, followed by a soft vaginal suppository, used as a "gentle" abortive vaginal suppository, such as myrtle, wallflower seed, and bitter lupines in equal amounts. Then mold to the size of a bean with water. (See appendix for other vaginal suppositories used as abortifacients. A major danger of this type of abortion is that it can lead to air in the uterus, which leads to major complications and infections.)


Scene from an Egyptian tomb of a woman nursing a child.

The plant Birthwort shown on right causes abortion if taken early in pregnancy.


Surgical Methods:


Also, although archaeological finds (Milne, 81) have provided evidence for the surgical removal of a fetus, it is believed (since such methods hardly ever appear in medical texts) that this method of abortion was neither common nor frequently recommended. In fact, readers are warned of the danger of separation of the womb and uterus that may occur if sharp-edged objects are used (Soranus Bk.I, Ch. XIX).



Abortion Wine:


Dioscorides (Riddle, 54-55) in a brief section describes an abortion wine made from several components of drugs. Evidence shows that the abortion wine world work effectively if mixed properly; however, Dioscorides provides the list of the ingredients, but not the directions to prepare the recipe. There is a possible explanation for Dioscorides' omission of instructions on the preparation. Ancient rumors or fold stories tell us of venders selling certain "potions" for effective birth control. Their potions included common ingredients, but they were prepared in a "secret " way in order to obtain effectiveness and a monopoly on the market. So whereas Dioscorides might have known the ingredients, he would not necessarily know the proper amounts, which implies that he knew of the existence of an abortion wine, but not its practice.


Signs of Impending Abortion:


Indications of an impending abortion include: at first a watery discharge of fluid will appear, followed by an ichorous or sanguineous fluid (like water that meat has been washed in). At the moment of detachment of the fetus there will be a pure blood flow, then a clot of blood in the form of flesh (formed or unformed). Physical pain includes a heaviness or pain in the loins, hips, lower abdomen, groin, head, eyes, and joints, a gnawing in the stomach, and perspiration, sweats, chills, fainting, fever, possibly hiccups, cramps, or loss of voice. Other wise if the abortion or miscarriage is due to natural consequences, there may be a shrinking of the breasts, coldness of thighs, and heaviness in the loins.







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