Ancient Athenian Women and the issue of abortion

Posted on: 19 May 2023 by Sofia Giapantzali in 2023 posts

Athenian women

What was abortion perceived in Ancient Greece? PhD Candidate, Sofia Giapantzali, gives us an introduction into her findings.

**Sensitive content disclaimer** The information in this article may be upsetting for some readers, reader discretion is advised. 

Abortion in modern Greece

Abortion is a perennial issue that has raised controversy around the world. In the modern Greek state, abortion is a woman's legal right that can be implemented under certain conditions. The right to abortion was enshrined in Greek law initially, with Law 821/1978, while later with Law 1609/1986 there were some amendments (Sarella, Lykeridou, Glinou, Bothou, Palaska, Tzanavara, Zervoudis & Petropoulou, 2021).  The last modification was Law 4619/2019, in article 304 of the Criminal Code, who extended the time limit for abortion in case of pathological findings according to  the standards of European Codes, as the Austrian (Sarella, Lykeridou, Glinou, Bothou, Palaska, Tzanavara, Zervoudis  & Petropoulou, 2021).

What was the case in Ancient Athens?

The healing of diseases and the provision of medical care are integral aspects of humanity. Advances in medical science seem to have influenced the value system and the way medical issues are perceived. Abortion was in ancient times one such aspect of medical science. The views expressed on this issue varied by geographical area. The Greeks, Romans, as well as Assyrians did not share the view that the embryo is alive and therefore has human rights (Yarmohammadi, Zargaran, Vatanpour, Abedini & Adhami, 2013).  In contrast, the Persians perceived the fetus as a person with human rights and equal to society (Yarmohammadi, Zargaran, Vatanpour, Abedini & Adhami, 2013). Persian law was strict and prohibited abortion to both mother and father or the person who helped the mother conduct this act, as it was considered murder (Yarmohammadi, Zargaran, Vatanpour, Abedini & Adhami, 2013).

Greek term about abortion – but not the only one- is (ex)amblōsis (Pepe, 2013).  This term presents for example, in the title given to a Lysian discourse whose few surviving fragments represent one of our main sources on the political and legal significance of the issue (Pepe, 2013). In the case of ancient Athens, abortion was not forbidden by law. However, this right was not directed at the woman and her sovereignty over her body but at the rights of the father of the child she was carrying (Flacelière, 1971). The pregnant woman is not allowed to have an abortion without permission (Flacelière, 1971). The responsibility for terminating the pregnancy rested with the woman's husband or, in the case of a slave, with her master (Flacelière, 1971). After all, the perception regarding the woman, which is emphasized by many sources, is that her body is the vessel for her child, while fatherhood plays a prominent role in relation to motherhood (Pepe, 2012). However, the existence of the embryo as a living being begins to emerge at the end of the 5th century B.C. (Pepe, 2013) – although foetus is not considered to have a "right to life".

What do the philosophers Plato and Aristotle support about abortion?

Aristotle considers, in his work Politics, that abortion is permissible if it is performed before the fetus has a life and feeling, that is, before it is formed (Flacelière, 1971). This perception is also echoed in an ancient religious law of Cyrene, which distinguishes two cases: the formed embryo and the non-formed. In the first case, the miscarriage is equivalent to the miasma of a natural death, while in the second case it is a simple miasma, as after childbirth (Flacelière, 1971). Thus, it is concluded that this is not a universal principle, based on which the right to life in the fetus is recognized, but a religious fear (Flacelière, 1971). Moreover, both Plato and Aristotle recommended abortion in the description of ideal states in certain cases and under certain situations, as a way of birth control (Pepe, 2013).


To conclude, it is difficult to trace in Ancient Greece, based on the sources, a perception of the embryo and its right to life. Although at the end of the 5th century BC, it seems that the idea that the fetus is a living being is beginning to prevail. However, the idea of the "right to life" is terra incognita at least until the Christian era. This finding also derives from the perceptions of the philosophers, Plato and Aristotle.