History of abortion

Abortion goes a long way back, right back to ancient times in which a variety of methods were employed to induce an abortion. These included herbs, applying pressure to the abdomen and the use of sharp instruments.

In Ancient Greece, women who wished to undergo an abortion were advised to engage in any number of activities which included vigorous exercise, jumping up and down, riding a horse and carrying a heavy object (or objects).

Various methods for abortion

Bloodletting, herbal baths and pessaries (small devices inserted into the vagina) were also recommended.

But these were not without risks, for example, some herbs used to induce an abortion were found to be poisonous and caused dangerous side effects.

Many of these practices persisted into medieval times. In the Middle Ages, abortion was permitted and involved the use of abortion-inducing herbs such as black cohosh, vervain, saffron and tansey.

These herbs are known as ‘abortifacients' in that they are designed to cause an abortion. There are synthetic versions which have been produced via a laboratory and include mifepristone and misoprostol.

Then there are plant or herbal varieties which are available as ‘over the counter’ medications and include mugwort, slippery elm and pennyroyal (mint family). These contain instructions which state that they must not be used by pregnant women which suggest that they may cause an abortion although this is not stated in the labelling.

Illegal abortion

Abortion was declared illegal in the 16th Century but still continued in spite of this law. This persisted into the Victorian era and beyond with many women forced to visit a ‘backstreet abortionist’ or to induce an abortion themselves.

This would involve the use of a sharp knitting needle, gin, hot baths or even throwing themselves downstairs to induce an abortion.

In many cases these unsafe abortions resulted in bleeding, infection and internal damage and in some cases, were fatal. But desperation drove many women to these lengths.

Even though abortion has been legalised in most countries there are places where due to its being forbidden, women still resort to unsafe or dangerous practices to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

UK Abortion Act 1967

In 1967 the Abortion Act was passed in the UK which meant that abortion was permitted by licensed practitioners and could be provided as a free service via The National Health Service (NHS).

This Act ensured that abortion was available up to the 28th week of pregnancy. This was amended by the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act which reduced this from 28 weeks to 24 weeks maximum. Abortion could only be performed after 24 weeks in extreme cases such as severe disability in the foetus, or serious or potentially fatal disease in the woman.

In May 2008 there were arguments for lowering this limit to 22 or 20 weeks but the 24 week abortion limit still remains in place.

The Act also states that abortion must be performed in a hospital or a licensed clinic.

Abortion is legal in England, Scotland and Wales but the situation is different in Northern Ireland. Abortion is only permitted in rare cases where the baby is likely to be stillborn or the mother’s health is at risk.

As a result of this many women travel to England, Wales or Scotland to have an abortion.

Throughout history, abortion has caused a great deal of debate, controversy and protest. This debate includes ethical, religious and philosophical issues about abortion which are discussed further in the next section.

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