If you thought the American Health Care Act marked the first time abortion came under fire from the state, you'd be incredibly wrong. Throughout history, women's right to choose has frequently been unsafe, often secretive, and punished violently if discovered — and even a brief examination of how abortion was criminalized in the past reveals that people who opposed abortions didn't just restrict themselves to attacking the people who provided them. The women themselves were often subject to intense, even deadly punishments, if they managed to survive the process itself (I've written about abortion methods in history before, but suffice to say you'd generally be lucky to get out alive) — so Donald Trump's 2016 comment that women who sought out abortions should be subject to "some form of punishment" wasn't as far out of left field as many thought. People have always had problems with women controlling their own bodies — and sometimes, they've even used state-sanctioned execution to make their point.
Today's world is, of course, hardly easy for abortion providers. Shootings and other violent attacks at abortion clinics remain a problem in America — and even without the threat of violence, gradual defunding, local regulations that all but ban the procedure, and threats of lost support through the global gag rule (which bans overseas organizations helped by US foreign aid from even talking about abortion) have made being an abortion provider immensely difficult in the US or abroad. It's always been tough to help women in their hour of need — and historically, many abortion providers were repaid for their help with violence and death. So, as we go through yet another period of national unrest around the issue of choice, consider thanking your local abortion provider. Their job has, throughout history, been one of the most thankless ones out there.
Warning: this post contains some graphic descriptions of historical torture.
Deportation And Loss Of All Your Stuff
The ancient Greeks and Romans appeared to have slightly conflicted attitudes towards abortion and its procurers. Technically speaking, ancient Greek women under the control of the head of their household could be ordered by him to have an abortion, and punished if they didn't. But there were disagreements; while abortions appear to have been widely known and permitted, particularly among sex workers, one temple forbade entrance to anybody who'd had one, and an early version of the Hippocratic Oath forbade prescribing abortifacients to anybody.
It was the Lex Cornelia of 81 BC, a law that was technically aimed at assassins and poisoners, that seemed to define ancient Rome's stance on abortion. But things were still a bit unclear — it's not entirely certain whether the law's stipulations of "deportation and the loss of his goods" were extended to people who provided abortions through pennyroyal tea or other herbal concoctions. One medical historian argues that they probably were, which meant that any abortion provider would face the risk of loss of all their belongings and their homeland itself, or, if the patient died, death.
Death By Impalement
The ancient Assyrians had a brutal perspective on abortions. One of the first recorded laws about abortion dates from the Code Of Assura, an 11th century BC legal text that declares the death penalty specifically for married women who obtained abortions without the permission or knowledge of their husbands. (If the husband did know or helped, it's implied, things were more acceptable.) The manner of death was left open, but another Middle Assyrian law dictates that women of any calibre who got abortions should be impaled and then left unburied, as the ultimate insult in that civilization.
In her Dictionary Of Torture, the perfectly named historian Nigette Spikes alleges that the ancient Persians developed a grotesque procedure for the mutilation of women who'd procured abortions. It was called a vanus, and involved slitting the perineum between the vagina and the anus. It's not entirely clear where Spikes got this information, but the procedure is indeed recorded as a part of old Persian medical practice in a gynecological compendium of 1935, where it's alleged that women suffering from difficult labors would have it performed using "ordinary and often rusty scissors."
Public Death, Being Blinded & Becoming A Slave
The Germanic tribes of the Visigoths produced a law code in the sixth and seventh centuries that was both deeply disapproving of abortion — "no depravity is greater," the section on it begins, "than that which characterizes those who, unmindful of their parental duties, willfully deprive their children of life" — and very complex as to how it should be punished.
A lot of it, it seems, depended on the rank of everybody involved. Providing an abortive drug to a slave girl meant 200 lashes. If a freeborn woman voluntarily took the drugs herself, she was sentenced to public execution, or in cases of "leniency," merely blinded and enslaved for the rest of her life, along with her husband if he agreed to the procedure. If she took the drugs involuntarily, she was still subject to being a slave.
Death For "Belly Murder" & "Quickening"
Medieval Europe had a bewildering variety of ways to deal with abortion, or what was known in some of the legal texts as "belly murder." Finding out who'd had one was one area of oddity; medieval Stockholm apparently employed women to go around squeezing the breasts of "childless" women to see if they expelled milk and therefore indicated a recent pregnancy. But another was the particular methodology applied to determining whether or not abortion was a crime.
According to a lot of thinkers up until about the 19th century, abortion itself was only deemed to have really happened after "quickening," or the point at which the fetus actually moved in the womb (roughly four months in). At that point, in law codes like the Alfonsine Laws of medieval Spain, women who procured one were condemned to death, but so was anybody who assaulted a pregnant woman who'd "quickened" and caused a miscarriage.
Pope Sixtus V, who ruled the Catholic church briefly in the 1580s, had extremely strong views on the idea of abortion, and published them accordingly. To him, anybody who provided an abortion through "blows, poison, medicine, potions, weights, burdens, work and labor imposed on a pregnant woman," whether intentionally or not, should be subject to the same punishment as "true" murderers and assassins. The offenders would likely be put to death, but Sixtus's other punishment, total excommunication, was likely to strike real fear into the hearts of offenders; not only were they going to die, but according to the laws of medieval Christianity, they had no chance whatsoever at salvation.
Six Years' Labor In Siberia
The 1845 Penal Code introduced in Russia was particularly hard going in terms of its treatment of people who provided abortions and those who asked for them. Both lost all "civil rights", and were sent to Siberia to do hard labor — the providers for six years, the women for an "indefinite period". In practice, though, apparently this rarely happened, as juries were known to be merciful about applying it. This was actually a softening of the older laws about abortion in Russia's medieval period, which had not only forbidden it (at some points it attracted the death penalty for the women involved) but also gave a woman's husband the right to punish her for it if it was done without his permission. Noticing a theme here?
It wasn't just Russia, either. An 1803 law introduced in England sentenced anybody who'd provided or obtained abortions to whipping, exile, or imprisonment indefinitely. It still specified the "quickening" part, though; once the baby had quickened, the punishment was automatically death.
A particularly vicious situation has popped up several times in history for the punishment of women who got abortions, once in Renaissance Italy and once among the slaves of 18th century Brazil — but, notably, both kinds of women involved were powerless and had no way to buy themselves out of their situations. Poor Renaissance women, and slave women brought over to Brazil who had aborted their children rather than allowing them to be born slaves, were subjected to the same punishment: death by crucifixion.
Jail Time (For Even Discussing Abortion)
Abortion providers are much more protected than they once were, but for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, they risked jail (and, in many countries where abortion is still illegal, they continue to do so). However, the United States set up a seriously draconian provision with the Comstock Laws of 1873.
Morality campaigner Anthony Comstock managed to pass his law forbidding the circulation of any "obscene literature and material for immoral use," which targeted everything from pornography to contraception — and, of course, abortion. They couldn't be discussed, read, printed or sent in the mail or overseas, and the punishment if found out was five years in jail and a whopping $2000 fine, the equivalent of around $35,000 in today's money.
If there's one thing we can draw from all this dark history, it's that no law or penalty can prevent women who want abortions from seeking them out — even if they have to risk death from the state to obtain them.