Abortion in Historical Context - The Early History of Abortion

Essay by steve001University, Master'sA, October 2007

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In 1974 the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress prepared a brief summary of the judicial and legislative aspects of abortion control for members of Congress. A portion of this "issue brief" dealing with the pre-1967 period is printed below.

DOCUMENT 1: An Overview of Judicial History and Legislative History. Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, Issue Brief on AbortionThe moral and legal issues raised by the practice of abortion has tested the philosophers, theologians, and statesmen of every age since the dawn of civilization. The Stoics' belief that abortion should be allowed up to the moment of birth was vigorously opposed by the Pythagoreans who believed that the soul was infused into the body at conception and that to abort a fetus would be to commit murder. Early Roman law was silent as to abortion; and abortion and infanticide was common in Rome, especially among the upper classes.

Opposition by scholars and the growing influence of the Christian religion brought about the first prohibition of abortion during the reign of Blank Robert H ( 193-211 A.D.). These laws made abortion a high criminal offense and subjected a woman who violated the provisions to banishment. During the European Middle Ages, major church theologians differentiated between an embryo informatus (prior to endowment of a soul) and an embryo formatus (after en- dowment with a soul). The distinction was used to assess punishments for abortion, fines being levied if abortion occurred before animation but death ordered if it [the fetus] was aborted at any time after.

The English common law adopted the doctrine of "quickening," i.e., the first movement of the fetus in the mother's womb, to pinpoint the time when abortion could incur sanctions. Generally, at common law, abortion performed before quickening was not an indictable offense. There is...