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Silphium plants were used in ancient Greece and Rome to induce abortion. The plant was harvested to extinction.

Silphium plants were used in ancient Greece and Rome to induce abortion. The plant was harvested to extinction.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Abortion is the termination of a pregnancy. A miscarriage is when this occurs spontaneously. In many cases the body absorbs a potential foetus before a woman knows she is pregnant. Abortion can also be induced, perhaps for therapeutic reasons. For example, the mother’s health may be in jeopardy or the foetus may carry a harmful genetic disorder. The latter is controversial among disability campaigners. Abortions are most commonly employed to halt unwanted pregnancies. Such terminations are now legal across much of the world, but they remain emotive and controversial.

Using abortion to terminate pregnancy has a long history. Ancient texts record the methods to induce it. Herbal potions and suppositories are noted; physical and mechanical interventions were used too. These included vigorous exercise, purging, bleeding and inserting sharp wood and metal instruments. They were dangerous, often forbidden, techniques. Thousands of women have died over the centuries at the hands of untrained practitioners, known in more recent times as ‘backstreet abortionists’.

Medically supervised abortions are now carried out in a number of ways. Drugs can be used at various stages of pregnancy, including the ‘morning-after pill’ which induces an extremely early abortion. A hormone-like substance called prostaglandins is the most commonly used drug for late abortions. Surgical techniques include vacuum aspiration, where the fetus is removed with a suction pump; another is dilation and curettage (‘D and C’), where the fetus is extracted with a sharp instrument. The upper time limit for abortions in Britain is currently 24 weeks after conception.


Related links

Techniques and Technologies:


K Kapparis, Abortion in the Ancient World (London: Duckworth Academic, 2001)

J M Riddle, Eve's Herbs: History of Contraception and Abortion in the West (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999)



The condition of having a developing unborn embryo or foetus in the body. A human pregnancy is usually of 40 weeks gestation.


The name given to the embryo during the later stages of development. In human reproduction it refers to an unborn child from its eighth week of development.


A substance produced in one part of the body which passes into the bloodstream and is then carried to other (distant) organs or tissues, where it acts to modify their structure or function