Abortions in Byzantine times (325-1453 AD)


From Soranus'work "Gynaikeia" illustrating  various presentations of the foetus. Manuscript  of 19th c. Royal Library, BrusselsAbortions in Byzantine times (325-1453 AD)

By E. Poulakou-Rebelakou, J. Lascaratos and S.G. Marketos

Vesalius – Acta Internationalia Historiae Medicinae, Vol.2:1 (1996)

Abstract: The legislation and the texts of the most important medical writers of Byzantine times have been studied with reference to abortions, the ethical aspect of this social and medico-legal problem, the theological and the scientific approach. The theoretical basis of the permanent and absolute condemnation of all kinds of abortions except those permitted for medical reasons, is greatly influenced by the spirit of Christianity. In fact, religion supported the view that the reception of the seed in the uterus and the conception of the embryo means the beginning of life and accepted that the foetus is already a living creature. All legislation of Byzantium from the earliest times also condemned abortions. Consequently, foeticide was considered equal to murder and infanticide and the result was severe punishments for all persons who participated in an abortive technique reliant on drugs or other methods. The punishments could extend to exile, confiscation of property and death.

The physicians followed the tradition of Ancient Greece, incorporated in the Hippocratic Oath, representative of the ideas of previous philosophers. According to this famous document, it is forbidden them to give a woman “an abortive suppository”. The Orthodox faith reinforced this attitude, protective of every human life. On the other hand, the Church and the State accepted selective abortion based on medical data, such as prevention of dangerous conditions in pregnancy or anatomical difficulties involved.

In conclusion, science, church and legislation had a common attitude to matters concerning abortion and this fact reveals an effort to apply a fair policy for the rights of the embryo and the protection of human life in Byzantine society.




Introduction: During the eleven centuries of the Byzantine Empire, abortions and castrations remained the two forbidden medical practices. Imperial legislation and Church Canons both expressed social attitudes towards these medico-legal problems, following the main ideological and political currents of those times. The permanent prohibition is probably explained by the extension, the persistence and the repetition of the practices. The rise of Christianity after Emperor Constantine’s conversion (313 AD) was the critical point for changes in social behaviour especially in the matter of protection of infancy and childhood.

At this point a short historical review is considered necessary, so that the most important philosophical opinions may be mentioned. The ancient religions of Greece in the Classical period did not include the dogma of an immortal soul and consequently the threat of any eternal punishment. For Plato, foeticide is one of the regular institutions of the ideal state, against the danger of overpopulation. He accepted the use of abortions in birth control, especially when the age of the mother was over 40 years or the mother herself had decided it, without descriptions about the kind of abortifacients.

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See also: Contraception and Abortion in the Greco-Roman World