Abortion has its traces in history for as far back as ancient Greece, but only over the past two centuries has the issue of abortion taken center stage. Whether politically, religiously, or morally, abortion has become a hot topic of debate that has progressively changed shape over the years.
In ancient Greek times, the world-renowned philosopher Plato considered the concept of an “abortion.” Some of his compiled writings titled “Plato's Republic” discussed the topic of abortion. Within this work, Plato made the claim that infanticide (another term for abortion) was “obligatory if the mother was over 40” (Stafford, 54). This discussion of abortion was carried onto Plato's students such as the philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle made a distinction about abortion that is now a common area of debate, the distinction over “the 'formed' fetus versus the 'unformed' fetus’ (Stafford, 54). This distinction over whether the fetus can be aborted during different stage of development has now become one of the most controversial topics surrounding abortion, as pro-choice supporters attempt to market the idea that an unformed fetus is not alive and pro-life supporters argue the opposite. In addition to this, Aristotle also made a claim about exactly when life “came into the fetus,” stating that “human life was present in the fetus when distinct organs were formed” and that this occurred in male fetuses 40 days after conception and in female fetuses 90 days after conception (Stafford, 54).
In the Roman Empire, abortion was frequent and widespread throughout the population (Luker 12). Famous authors like Ovid and Seneca noted the existence of abortion and one author (Pliny) even talked of medicines that could be taken to aid abortion. Within the Roman Empire, legal regulation of abortion was essentially non-existent because Roman law upheld that the fetus inside of a woman’s belly was not a person, and therefore abortion was not murder (Luker 12). After the Christian era, laws started to take form, but these were mainly implemented for the benefit of the father and not the fetus. Religion has often been framed as one of the main forces marketing in opposition against the idea of women receiving an abortion, particularly the Catholic and Christian churches. However, this was not always true. During the early centuries of Christianity, abortion was common and when faith spread in this Roman-Greco culture it “considered abortion routine” (Stafford, 53). Christian ideologies condemned abortion as well as contraception, homosexuality, and castration for being equivalent to murder. However, these theologies are not mentioned in the Christian or Jewish bible, or in the Jewish Mishnah and Talmud (Luker 13). The closest that the bible comes to mentioning abortion is found in Exodus 21:22-23 in which the text argues that men who strike a woman and cause an accidental miscarriage must be held accountable for murder. In other written Christian works, though, abortion is explicitly condemned. On the other hand, church councils, who were called to specify legalities for Christian communities, only created abortion penalties for women who became pregnant through adultery or prostitution. From the third century onward, Christian thought start to distinguish whether or not the abortion of an unformed embryo was considered a murder of a person or not. The general consensus of this time period came about in 1100 AD from a prominent church scholar, Ico of Chartres, who condemned abortion and yet did not consider the act a homicide (Luker 13).
The words of ancients Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle were, for a long time, seriously considered among Christians including views on abortion. Eventually, though, this changed. One document from the early 2nd century titled the “Didache” summarized the Christian anti-abortion belief with the statement “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion/destruction” which instead