My body, someone else’s choice: Abortions through history

Updated: Jan 26

Writing by Emma Brennan. Illustration by Berenika Murray.

Like many aspects of women’s lives throughout history, men have often used their position in society to control abortion rights.. The liberalization of abortion has not been a straightforward journey. Legalization and attitudes towards abortion have fluctuated greatly yet have always been tied to the desire for men to maintain their patriarchal power.


In early centuries, abortion was an accepted procedure both in secular law and even to an extent accepted in the eyes of the church. However, in the Victorian period prohibiting abortion was weaponized by men to keep control over women, and the attitudes of the church subsequently became more conservative surrounding abortion. The Catholic Church, in particular, has had a strong influence in restricting abortions and limiting womens’ rights to choose what to do with their bodies. Although in so-called developed countries abortions are generally legalized, women still face harassment and barriers to accessing safe abortions.


In Ancient Greece and Rome, abortions were a customary medical procedure. On occasions when abortions were contested, it had nothing to do with concern for the fetus’s life but rather with opposition from men who felt they were being deprived of a child to which they felt entitled. As seen throughout the history of abortion rights, men’s feelings of entitlement over women’s bodies were given priority over women’s feelings, despite it being their bodies which bore the burden of pregnancy.


This approach to abortions was also a common feature in the Middle Ages. Prohibitions on abortion were rooted in the idea that they could be maliciously performed to deny a man his heir. Even the Church in the Middle Ages had a conflicted approach to abortion. Abortion was perceived as an obstacle to salvation, yet at the same time there were stories about pregnant nuns who mysteriously became ‘unpregnant’.


Despite Catholics typically being strongly anti-abortion, the Catholic Church’s position has not always been this way. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V tried to declare abortion as murder, but the next Pope disagreed and so the Catholic church went back to allowing early abortion. However, in 1869 Pius IX declared abortion to be murder once again, this belief remaining the official position of the Catholic church to present day. Yet many anti-abortion Catholics tend to forget about the periods of acceptance towards abortion within Catholic doctrine and instead have had a significant influence on the restriction of abortion rights.


The late 1800s were a turning point for abortion rights in Britain, which up until 1861 had generally allowed abortion until quickening (the point when the fetus could be felt to be moving). However, the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 criminalized and outlawed abortion, even going as far as to make abortion a crime punishable by death in certain cases. The criminalization of abortion in Britain did not stop abortions being performed but rather pushed them underground. It goes without saying that the consequences of restricted access to abortions are devastating, with 47,000 women dying worldwide each year from unsafe abortions.


The criminalization of abortion in the 1800s was caused primarily by concerns that increasing female independence threatened the patriarchal status quo. Abortion was perceived as a tool for female independence with women choosing to start their families later and instead venturing into work outside the house. Religion also played a significant role in the emerging smear campaign against women seeking abortions, painting them as shameful and immoral. Abortions were seen by society as undermining traditional female roles as mothers and providers of lineage. Additionally white men also viewed abortions as a threat to their white supremacy - they worried that a lower birth rate among white women would threaten their position of power.


The Abortion Act of 1967 in the UK finally gave women access to safe and legal abortions. It was passed as a response to the significant number of women dying as they were being forced to seek out back-alley abortions. Despite this significant step forward for women’s reproductive rights, the Abortion Act requires that two doctors sign off on the abortion. Although most doctors have taken a liberal approach allowing the women to make the choice and supporting her, female autonomy is still once again at the mercy of someone else.


The threat to women’s abortion rights is always lurking in right-wing circles but has recently become dangerously strong, especially in the USA. The recent changes to abortion laws in Texas will have terrifying impacts for women and girls who face unwanted pregnancy. Once again, a woman’s choice over what she wants to do with her body is being taken away by those in power.



References and Further Reading

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/law/2012/mar/22/abortion-act-needs-reform

  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12340403/

  3. https://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/abortion/legal/history_1.shtml

  4. https://www.feminist.com/resources/ourbodies/abortion.html

  5. https://www-cambridge-org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/76E82CA40455DA7445D42152878B5D52/9781782045311int_p1-22_CBO.pdf/thinking_about_abortion_in_the_early_middle_ages.pdf

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