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Women and Family in Athenian Law 

K. Kapparis, edition of March 22, 2003

page 8 of 11

· Contraception, and Abortion ·

The Athenian kyrios did not have a right of life and death over the free members of his household, with the exception of newborn infants who had not yet been formally acknowledged and thus recognized as free persons with certain rights. Shortly after birth a father still had the right to have a newborn killed. Perhaps with the exception of some infants with severe disabilities infanticide was extremely rare because of religious scruple. The ordinary Athenian would fear the pollution (miasma) which taking a life might bring upon himself and his household, and this is why he would probably choose to expose an unwanted infant, and thus shake off the responsibility. The exposure of infants has been a striking theme of fictional literature (Tragedy, New Comedy, Novel), but in reality it rarely happened. Perhaps its frequency was higher in times of financial crisis (e.g. the final years of the Peloponnesian war), but on the whole the Athenians did not expose their infants more frequently than we do.

Read about the evidence
Plato (Plat. Rep.).
Aristotle (Aristot. Pol.).
Lysias (Lys. Fr 10).
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Unwanted births could be controlled through contraception and abortion, but both procedures were neither safe nor foolproof. Athenian law said nothing on either contraception or abortion, presumably because Athens, like most Greek city-states, preferred a rather limited and manageable population, and therefore had no good reason to resist such practices on a collective scale. In fact Plato and Aristotle recommend abortion in their utopian states as a method of population control (Plat. Rep. 460a-461c; Aristot. Pol. 1335b 19-26). However, as it happens today, some individuals might feel strongly against such practices. In the early 4th century one case over an induced abortion ended up in court as a homicide procedure, but it seems that it was a long shot and led to nothing (Lys. Fr 10 Thalheim). Athenian women could attempt contraception and abortion without fear of the law. Contraception of course would be safer, but unfortunately, since the ancient world did not exactly understand how the process of conception works, contemporary contraceptive methods often were nothing more than wishful thinking. Abortion might thus appear to be an inescapable necessity and a drastic last resort, especially for prostitutes, unmarried women and women who had conceived outside wedlock or with men other than their husbands. The Hippocratic corpus contains plentiful advice on oral drugs, pessaries, mechanical methods, and even a surgical procedure in order to induce an abortion (see especially the study “Diseases of Women”). Often this advice was dressed under a thin veil of medical necessity: it was supposed to be used for therapeutic purposes only. However, it is self-evident that once this knowledge was organized in writing it could be used for abortions dictated by a wide range of circumstances. In fact, the author of the Hippocratic study “The Nature of the Child” (13 = 4,490 Littré) describes how he helped a musician and expensive companion of rich men to have an abortion, and he does so without any concern for the moral implications of the case. The Hippocratic Oath, on the other hand, took a firm stance against abortion and banned it completely, probably because its author felt that a doctor’s primary duty is the preservation of life not its destruction. However, this Oath was not binding for many physicians who operated in Athens, and, it seems, it did not carry any legal weight with contemporary medical practice.

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 41).
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Abortions for aesthetic reasons do not seem to be a Greek phenomenon. Athenian women took pride in motherhood as they drew prestige and social status through their role as wives, mothers and matrons of respectable households. Better-off women might enjoy the luxury of a rather leisurely life at home, and were able to dedicate all their energy to the care of their family and household, and socialize with female friends and relatives. On special occasions they would dress up and go into town or to a sanctuary, participate in a festival and celebrate with the rest of the community. Athenian housewives were financially dependent upon their husbands, unless they were widowed with young children. In that case they could choose to remain in the house of their deceased husband, and take on the responsibility for the family assets. Occasionally they might need some help from male relatives in their transactions with the outside world, as respectability would not allow them to go to the financial centers of Athens and directly deal with strange men, but some of these independent-minded widows were definitely in charge (see Dem. 41).

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