There are documented methods of ending a gestation in ancient Egypt around 1500 BCE, as well as in ancient China at about 500 BCE. In those times, it was not achieved surgically, but rather by using either physical acts thought to cause miscarriage or taking herbs / medicines.
The physical methods used typically involved heavy physical activity. These included brisk walking or running, climbing, diving under water, lifting heavy weights, horseback riding, or swimming. Greeks used to encourage repeatedly jumping up and down, with an attempt to touch the heels to the buttocks. Other than heavy exercising, other attempts to induce a miscarriage included pouring hot water into the belly, draining of blood, or limiting food intake. Sometimes rectal enemas as well as placement of a pessary inside the vagina were prescribed.
In England it was believed that pressure across the abdomen and pelvis could cause the fetus to expel. Tight belts and pressure garments were worn in hope of causing a miscarriage.
Medicinal herbs have also been utilized long ago to induce a miscarriage. Some of the plants previously used for this purpose included rue, hellebore, scammony, and birthwort. The use of these agents have been common in the East as well as Western countries. Although some of these are actual abortifacients, others do not work at all. Most are quite dangerous and poisonous.
The use of the surgical procedure was very limited in ancient times. Since proper technique was not yet well developed, and proper instruments not utilized, safe dilation and curettage was not widely available. Being uninformed of appropriate sterile procedure also made infection risk very high. As a result, about a quarter of women that had a procedure would die. Interestingly, the instruments used were remarkably similar to some of those used in modern times, but were unsafe because of differing manufacturing processes as compared to today’s methods.
Effectiveness and Safety of Ancient Methods:
Some of the previously mentioned attempts of pregnancy termination were obviously wrong and ineffective, such as the physical exertion, drainage of blood, fasting, or jumping. However, others were somewhat effective, namely the medical / herbal concoctions, as well as the surgical procedure for pregnancy termination. Though they worked, they were also very unsafe. Fortunately, we now live in a world that offers medical and surgical options that are both effective and safe.
(Please note that this article describes some of the historical accounts of abortion, and is not intended to instruct you on do-it-yourself. Most of the described attempted ways to cause pregnancy termination either don’t work or are very dangerous. Never try any of these yourself, and if you need an abortion, seek the help of a medical doctor or provider that specializes in family planning services.)
Learn more about abortion risks here.