SHP Special Edition: Some Historical Facts about Abortion
This is a special edition of the Secret Histories Project, put together in response to the death of Savita Halappanavar from what looks like — based on the facts available at this time — grossly unethical legal constraints that were placed on the doctors who were charged with treating her.
Did you know…
- That abortion is NOT a twentieth- or twenty-first century phenomenon — it’s recorded in texts such as the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus (c.1500 BCE), in Ancient Greek and Roman medical treatises (including the writings of Hippocrates himself!), the fifth-century Pseudo-Apulelius’ Herbarium (pictured above in a 13thC manuscript, image originally published in John Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance) and the medieval Trotula (c.11th-12th century) — and it wasn’t banned by the state in the US and UK until the nineteenth century. (So if you hear anyone saying that the laws tying the hands of Halappanavar’s doctors were ‘medieval’, you’ll know that this isn’t the case!).
- That the Catholic Church did not consider abortions carried out before the ‘quickening’ (around 20 weeks) to be a mortal sin until the declaration of Pope Sixtus V in 1588 (source - be aware that this link goes to a pro-life site).
- That in between the banning of abortion by the US government from the 1820s to the 1860s and its re-legalisation in 1973, many people died from illegal abortions carried out by unqualified practitioners — in 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women (source).
- That from 1950-1960, it is estimated that there were 200,000 to 1.2 million illegal abortions per year (source).
- That today, unsafe/illegal abortions still account for around 13% of maternal mortality worldwide (source).
- That a 2007 study conducted jointly by the WHO and the Guttmacher institute concluded that the number of women who will obtain an abortion one way or another is not greatly affected by legality — but that the standards of safety and patient care they can access definitely are (source). In other words, that women who need abortions will usually find a way to get them — all legislation can really control is whether than will happen under safe, legal conditions with qualified practitioners, or in unsafe, illegal environments.
- That numerous doctors have testified to the horrors of the pre-legalisation years.
- That an illegal or unsafe abortion produces a risk of death that is several hundred times higher than a legal procedure (source).
- [ETA: Updated Jan 29, 2013] That the blanket anti-abortion ‘fertilised egg = exactly the same rights as an adult human being’ position espoused by some evangelical churches is in fact a very recent phenomenon — as this blog post points out, more recent than the Happy Meal.
I wish that all the sad and terrible Secret Histories that I had to tell you about were firmly in the past… but clearly they aren’t yet. If the facts as current reporting has indicated them to be are true, there is absolutely no reason why Savita Halappanavar had to die. Please make sure that you tell this to those who are in charge of making laws at every possible opportunity.
A timeline of reproductive rights: http://www.prochoice.org/about_abortion/history_abortion.html
Factsheet from the University of Columbia: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/hs/pubhealth/modules/reproductiveHealth/abortion.html
Google Books link: John Riddle, Contraception and Abortion From the Ancient World to the Renaissance (1994):http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=1vS85LtlsnIC&printsec=frontcover&dq=john+riddle+abortion&hl=en&sa=X&ei=4dOkUKjjHcSX1AXvlIDYDQ&redir_esc=y
Google Books link: John Riddle, Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West (1999): http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2y1qghNDdBoC&dq=john+riddle+contraception+and+abortion&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Testimonies from before legalisation:
Video - Dr Mildred Hanson recalls her experience of treating patients before Roe vs. Wade: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dGHMrCovG4
Newspaper article about Hanson: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/04/movies/think-tank-doctors-who-performed-abortions-before-roe-v-wade.html