The more I study history the more I realize that humans never really change, I mean, not really. We debate the same issues, struggle with the same weaknesses, and battle the same strengths. It fascinates me, this lack of change, because as much as historians look for the things that uniquely identify a society the more we see and discover ourselves. So it is with that preface that I tread into the landmine field which is the discussion on the start of life and the value of it inside the womb. Personal opinions on the matter are not in subject here; the only issue in discussion is the mirror which reflects back on our own faces staring out at us from thousands of years ago.
This piece is a continuation of an informal series highlighting various parts of Dr. Martin Goodman’s book, “Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations.” The first part can be found here: http://wp.me/p2CDWl-7M.
The ability to control pregnancy, that is, the desire to be in control of when and with whom a pregnancy occurs has long been a thorn in the side of lovers and couples alike. How a culture deals with that thorn can be very revealing about its character. For those familiar with the Romans’ love of celebrating their alpha-culture by displaying their ability to subdue and control all things even nature itself, it is no surprise that they- like other empires such as the Egyptian, were actively engaged with birth control methods. These methods were often radical if not simply weird and their effectiveness was questionable even for the Romans. Among the long and varied list of things to try are suggestions of using parasites found in a specific spider to ward of pregnancy for a year, feces of various animals used as a topical application, and all sorts of herbal concoctions. It is with a small sense of wonder then to state that not all of the contraceptives were completely ineffective. Nevertheless, it was an accepted fate that pregnancy would often still occur despite the best attempts to master it. Given the high rate of infant mortality and the chances of surviving childhood, large families were not common in the ancient world and while this accepted reality would suggest an assumed need to increase one’s chances for heirs by having more of them, this was not a view shared by Romans; at least not by the upper class from whom we have the greatest record of activities and attitudes.
The reasons for doing an abortion in the ancient world are the same as our modern one: inconvenience, shame, medical complications, etc. While Romans were fully aware of the growing child inside the womb, abortion was simply seen as another form of birth control despite the larger reason to perform the procedure. While abortion was the most guaranteed method of controlling life it was also the most dangerous. After the poet Ovid’s girlfriend nearly died from an abortion he wrote of the experience (Book II Elegy XIII& XIV) revealing that Romans tended to have little sympathy for any woman who died having had an abortion for non-medical reasons: ‘No lioness dares to destroy her unborn young, yet tender girls do- but not unpunished, for she who destroys her own children in her womb often dies herself. She herself dies, and is carried to the funeral pyre with hair unloosed, and everyone who sees her pyre shouts, ‘She deserved it”’. Ovid’s voice of disapproval was for personal, even moral, reasons and while others also echoed Ovid’s dislike for abortions, not all shared the same root of concern. For example, the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus disapproved of abortions more likely out of concern for the welfare of the state since an abortion resulted in a loss of person(s) by which to grow the state. Like all major surgeries, abortion was taken very seriously and surviving gynaecology and obstetrics treatises clearly outline the procedures required both days before the abortion was to be done and during the operation itself.
The ability to choose either life or death for the baby extended beyond just the womb for Romans. In modern society once a baby has been born they are unquestionably considered a human being with full rights but not so in Roman society. That moment of the right to life was delayed until the father was presented with the baby and he ceremoniously decided that the child was his by lifting the child into the air thereby legitimizing its existence. Any child not recognized by the father was not considered fully human and was free to be exposed- and so left to the care of the gods, sold into slavery, or killed, all of which were merely an extension of the abortion process. The child being either in or outside the womb was inconsequential since it was the father’s acceptance of the baby which made it a human life worth protecting. While the disposal of an unwanted infant after birth seems particularly cold hearted, it did not always pass without distress and Romans were more apt at showing their emotion at this point than during an in utero abortion. Adoptions and rescues did happen however, and a number of questions were raised about the legal status of abandoned children since abandonment was optioned often enough to create a populace of people with questionable or unknown citizen status. Latin poets, philosophers and play writes enjoyed exploring the imagined life and times of this dubious class of rescued children growing up, reuniting with their biological parents, and their life with the adoptive family. While writers romanticized the abandoned child story, the reality for most of them was far from romantic since becoming a free slave was most often their fate.
To the complete opposite of Roman attitudes towards abortion were the Jews who rejected it with abhorrence allowing it only in extreme cases, and as Josephus leads us to believe, this was unequivocally so. Infanticide was never allowed under any condition. Any woman who took the life of a baby or fetus was seen as a child killer having destroyed a soul and robbed the state, and while this latter attitude was shared by Musonius Rufus, it was nevertheless an unique enough hard stance for various non-Jewish authors to take note of it. Reproduction was a commandment from God and because humans were created in the image of God life had value and was not expendable. Life was, therefore, sacred starting at its earliest moment. Nevertheless, as with all matters of belief, not everyone shared the same convictions and grey areas are no less a stranger to Jewish beliefs than with any interpretation of law. The Mishnah confirms Josephus’ assertation that killing a newborn is murder, however, it defines a newborn as being a baby only once the, “greater part of the head” emerges and before that point the rights of life to a newborn were not yet in effect. The mother’s life had precedent over the fetus and an abortion would occur only to save the life of the mother if a choice had to be made. If, however, the greater part of the head had already emerged and a crisis was evident then the child, “may not be touched, since the claim of one life cannot override the claim of another.” Who had the priority of life, either the child or mother, is not clear and it may be assumed that nature would have had the deciding vote. The prominent Alexandrian Jew Philo, on the other hand, believed that once a fetus gained the shape of a human, then abortion would be murder: “…if the offspring is already shaped and all the limbs have their proper qualities and places in the system…that which answers to this description is a human being…in the laboratory of Nature who judges that the hour has not yet come for bringing it out into the light, like a statue in a studio requiring nothing more than to be conveyed outside and released from confinement.”
While Romans and many others recorded their ideas on contraceptives Jewish texts are rather silent on the subject. Since being fruitful and multiplying was a divine command this is not an overly mysterious omission in the texts. We do know that the Jews were aware and informed on the variety of contraceptives available as references are made to them in Jewish writings. Jewish philosophers and sages allowed their philosophies to entertain various situations where Jewish women could utilize such knowledge. For example, recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, a certain Judith, wife of Rabbi Hiyya, drank a sterilizing potion when the pain and danger of childbirth gave cause for concern of her life should another pregnancy happen.
Exposing unwanted children was something of another grey area because Jewish parents did reject their children, though doubtfully as often as non Jews. Gathering evidence from common Jewish beliefs it can be comfortably believed that Jewish parents were more likely to abandon their children in places where they could be found rather than leaving the baby in a desert place or thrown into rivers as other cultures were more prone to do. In a discussion of intermarriage, the Mishnah lists a category of person known as an asufi, interpreted to mean, “any that was picked up from the street and knows neither his father nor his mother”, paralleling the category of person the Romans had to deal with in their questions over citizenship and family lineage. For both Romans and Jews who abandoned their children in populated areas, their hope must have been that the child would be found and brought into a household as a slave. Expectedly in both Roman and Jewish worlds, slaves on average had a rather bleak future ahead of them. Even still, then, as today, the chance of life was seen as a better opportunity than death could ever afford.