The poets, as Freud said, always get there first. The author of the Metamorphoses and the Amores, a man best known for his vivid narratives of maidens turning into trees and heroes descending into the underworld, seems an unlikely candidate for the first pro-lifer. But it is hard to find many people before Ovid who made such an expansive statement against abortion as he does in the Amores, Book II Elegy XIV.
Why submit your womb to probing instruments,
or give lethal poison to what is not yet born?
To complicate things, there seems to be a strong possibility that the child in question was his. He pleads with his lover:
You too, with your beauty still to be born, would have died,
if your mother had tried what you have done.
Though the poem builds up to a rhetorical height of grief and indignation, anger is abruptly replaced by something more merciful:
…let these words vanish on the ethereal breeze,
and let my imprecations have no weight!
You gods, prosper her: let her first sin go, in safety,
and be satisfied: you can punish her second crime!
The Roman world, the classical world in general, was a dangerous place to be small and vulnerable. The philosophers casually justified the destruction of life. Plato felt that women over 40 ought not to be allowed children: they ‘should be very careful not to let a single foetus see the light of day, but if one is conceived and forces its way to the light, they must deal with it in the knowledge that no nurture is available for it’ – ‘deal with it’ meaning ‘get rid of it’. Aristotle recommended ‘a law that no deformed child shall live’.
People lived by these principles. About a century after Ovid, in Trajan’s reign, an inscription records that out of 181 newborns, 35 were girls. This was no coincidence: as in parts of the modern world, including Britain, the words ‘It’s a girl’ were some of the most dangerous you could utter. Classical writers do not seem to distinguish much between taking life before and after birth, an honesty which makes the facts even more chilling. All those lives ‘dealt with’ – for being female, or disabled, or inconvenient. Ovid sorrowfully reminds us that everyone was once unborn and defenceless:
If Ilia had murdered the twins in her swollen womb,
the founder of my mistress’s City would have been lost.
If Venus had desecrated her belly, pregnant with Aeneas,
Earth would have been bereft of future Caesars.
It has to be said that Ovid doesn’t come across entirely well here. There’s not much acceptance of responsibility on his part. Even so, the elegy is a remarkable moment. Just for a moment, somebody struggled free of the barbarism of the ancient world, and launched into history a cry of compassion for the unborn. It is one of those strange coincidences that the somebody in question just happened to be Shakespeare’s favourite poet.
Oxford Students for Life is fundraising! Go here to find out more.