Abortion in Late Imperial China: Routine Birth Control or Crisis Intervention?
Sommer, Matthew H
Late imperial China = Ch?ing shih wen t?i 2010; 31(2): 97-165
In late imperial China, a number of purported methods of abortion were known; but who actually attempted abortion and under what circumstances? Some historians have suggested that abortion was used for routine birth control, which presupposes that known methods were safe, reliable, and readily available. This paper challenges the qualitative evidence on which those historians have relied, and presents new evidence from Qing legal sources and modern medical reports to argue that traditional methods of abortion (the most common being abortifacient drugs) were dangerous, unreliable, and often cost a great deal of money. Therefore, abortion in practice was an emergency intervention in a crisis: either a medical crisis, in which pregnancy threatened a woman's health, or a social crisis, in which pregnancy threatened to expose a woman's extramarital sexual relations. Moreover, abortion was not necessarily available even to women who wanted one.