Medical writers did make a distinction between contraception and abortion, but in practice it was often difficult to tell from case to case whether the procedure was in fact contraceptive or abortive. As a result, prescriptions for contraception and early term abortions were often very similar. Jumping up and down vigorously, for example, was a suggested way of both preventing conception (if done right after intercourse) or of expelling a foetus.
These texts also didn’t make much distinction between miscarriage and purposeful abortion and usually used the same word for both,** sometimes signifying the former by calling it “spontaneous.” Many Hippocratics interpreted the line “I will never give a woman a destructive pessary” as forbidding methods of abortion. Soranus, meanwhile pointed out that this left other methods available. He also argued that if the foetus endangered the mother’s life and health, it should be aborted.
It is also important to remember here that the ethics surrounding this question had more to do with property rights than individual ones. While some philosophers had things to say about when in a pregnancy abortion was allowable or not, this was a society that permitted fathers to discard unwanted infants.** It is also worth noting that in the upper classes of Roman society, abortions were not uncommon and were used both as a way for women to keep their figures (at least, that was the accusation) and, more importantly, as a method of family planning. According to law, however, the right to make this decision lay with the father or the slave’s owner.
*There was apparently one case where a court accepted a woman’s claim that her pregnancy had lasted 13 months.
**As they still do in the medical field today. “Abortion” simply means the end of a pregnancy. A “spontaneous abortion” is one that happens without anyone taking any action to cause it, known colloquially as a “miscarriage.”
***Infanticide by exposure was certainly less common in Rome than in Classical Greece, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It was also often viewed as little different from late term abortion. Some physicians argued that abortion, particularly earlier abortion, was better than infanticide not because of the child but because it was safer for the mother not to have to go through childbirth.
Soranus. Gynaecology 1.60-64 - Diotima
Pliny the Elder. Natural History 7.39-48 [Found in Lefkowitz & Fant]
Hippocrates. On the Generating Seed and the Nature of the Child 13, 25 - Diotima
Hanson, Ann Ellis. "Continuity and Change: Three Case Studies in Hippocratic Gynecological Therapy and Theory." In Women's History and Ancient History, edited by Sarah B. Pomeroy, 73-110. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Pomeroy, Sarah. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.