Ancient History & Civilisation

Abortion & Infanticide:
The sad arithmetic of babies

“If she is bled, a woman will miscarry.” That quote comes from the pen of Soranus, the leading gynecologist in the early part of the second century A.D., who was quoting Hippocrates, who probably flourished around 420 B.C. Their advice about early-stage abortions suggested bleeding the pregnant female, administering sitz baths, using vaginal suppositories, or giving her effective herbals such as silphium or more dangerous drugs.

The Athenian philosopher Socrates, whose own mother was a midwife, remarks in Plato’s Theaetetus, “The midwives, by means of drugs and incantations, are able to arouse the pangs of labor and, if they wish, to make them milder, and to cause those to bear who have difficulty in bearing. And they [the midwives] cause abortions at an early stage if they think them desirable.”

About now, perhaps you’re wondering: what about that blasted Hippocratic Oath? Didn’t long-ago medical practitioners swear that they would never do abortions? Actually, no. The Greek has often been mistranslated (sometimes deliberately) to suggest a wider prohibition of abortion. Here’s what it did say, verbatim: “I will not give a [vaginal] suppository (called a pessary in ancient times) to cause an abortion.” Other abortion measures, including drugs, bleeding, and manipulation of the woman’s body, were allowed, however.

About five centuries after the original Hippocratic writings, a Stoic writer physician named Scribonius interpreted the oath to mean that Hippocrates was antiabortion and possibly anticontraception. Scribonius’s writings in turn influenced many others, even though a third-century A.D. papyrus text of the Hippocratic Oath confirms the “suppository only” reading.

These “lost in translation” issues might seem to be quibbles, but they are supremely relevant in our day and age. John Riddle, in his book Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance, notes their relevance, “when so many states have passed anti-abortion laws based in part on a misreading of the oath and thus of a doctor’s sacred obligations.”

Infant exposure and infanticide were other difficult alternatives for females unable or unwilling to keep the child. (The number could have been substantial, keeping in mind that female slaves during their fertile years were often the unwilling sex objects of owners, pimps, and customers.)


In slave-holding societies, unwanted pregnancies were terminated via abortion or infant exposure. Ritual sacrifice of children, however, now appears to have been quite rare.

In our century, much has been made of a papyrus letter found in an ancient Egyptian rubbish heap, written by a Greek man to his expectant wife. The document is a mix of husbandly affection and casual brutality. It ends: “If it’s a boy, let it be. If it’s a girl, expose it.” The letter provokes urgent questions. Were all female babies considered throwaways? Was infanticide of either sex a crime?

Here is another not-so-amusing example, written by an Athenian comic poet named Posidippus: “Everyone, even a poor man, raises a son. Everyone, even a rich man, exposes a daughter.”

Numerous scholars have done population studies by gender, and their opinions are far from unanimous. Laws in ancient times generally did not protect newborns or fetuses. Depending on time and place, certain cultures did not even consider a fetus or newborn fully human yet; Romans required the father to publicly accept the child first. Thus such children might lawfully be buried in the garden of the household. That said, female infanticide, based on studies of ancient gravesites and skeletal remains, does not seem to have been extensive enough to skew the ratio of males to females.

Nearly everyone has heard about the ghastly doings of the Carthaginians, the onetime superpower of the Mediterranean on the north coast of Africa, whose worship of the god Baal and the goddess of love and war Astarte required regular sacrifices of infants. For nearly six hundred years, babies were supposedly incinerated in small batches—and during a crisis, in huge offerings of five hundred or more. The motive for such mayhem? These sacrifices were thought to confer blessings on the parents who offered up their children.

That grim picture may not be true, however, as a painstaking, long-term archaeological study is revealing. A University of Pittsburgh team has for decades studied the cremated remains of 540 children in 348 burial urns in the Tophet cemetery near Carthage. As reported in a recent issue of Archaeology magazine, “[they] determined that about half the children were prenatal or would not have survived more than a few days after birth, and the rest died between one month and several years after birth.” The bottom line? As the article notes, “Their findings suggest a credible and biologically consistent explanation of the Tophet burials that offers an alternative to sacrifice.”

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