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Apropos of nothing, a brief history of abortifacients

Clockwise from top left: pennyroyal, tansy, cotton root, ferula
Clockwise from top left: pennyroyal, tansy, cotton root, ferula
Photo: João Branquinho, Steven Xiong, Lucas Ninno, Sergi Escribano (Getty Images)

Until the 1800s, a woman was not considered pregnant, technically, until the fetus had “quickened,” or started to move, and “life” didn’t begin until the baby started to nurse. After all, a person’s period could also be delayed by malnutrition or anxiety or illness or some sort of unspecified blockage. So why shouldn’t a woman who was concerned about her missing period be able to do something it bring it back again? This was all perfectly legal: the first anti-abortion laws weren’t enacted until 1803, in Great Britain.

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So how did these women make themselves unpregnant—or restore their flow? Oh, there were so many ways! A few methods have come down to us: jumping up and down so your heels touch your buttocks, taking a hot bath with a nice tot of gin, making vaginal suppositories out of herbs. But since The Takeout is a food publication, we will stick to things they ate.

The ancient city of Cyrene in modern-day Libya was famous for a plant called silphium that grew nowhere else. Silphium was the wonder herb of the classical world. It was a type of fennel, sort of like celery, or maybe parsley, with heart-shaped leaves. The Greeks and later the Romans imported it in massive quantities. They served it in fancy meals like stewed flamingo. They used it to cure growths in the anus and the bites of wild dogs. Men used it as an aphrodisiac. And women used it to, as Hippocrates and Pliny and other doctors at the time delicately put it, “purge the uterus.” Cyrenians did so well with silphium that they stamped it onto their coins. It was worth its weight in silver. And then silphium disappeared. No one knows why.

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Of course, not everyone could afford silphium. The Greek physician Dioscorides wrote down a recipe for “abortion wine” that contained ingredients that could be gathered closer to home—hellebore, squirting cucumber, and scammony—but neglected to mention quantities.

In the Middle Ages, women who wanted to restore their cycles were instructed to eat, among other things, crushed ants, the saliva of camels, and tail hairs of black-tail deer dissolved in bear fat. But herbs were generally considered more helpful, not just in Europe, but everywhere in the world: blue cohosh, calamus, horseradish, and red cedar in North America; Peruvian bark in South America; the boat-lip orchid, blue-leaved mallee, and Cooktown ironweed in Australia. Cotton root was used so often by enslaved women in America that warnings appeared about it in advice manuals for slaveholders.

Certain herbs keep coming up again and again through different times and cultures: tansy, rue, ferula, and, most of all, pennyroyal, a member of the mint family. All of these were usually brewed into teas. Sometimes there were magic words associated with them.

Then abortion became surgical and illegal. There are many theories for why this happened, including one that suggests that male doctors finally decided to start paying attention to women’s bodies and wanted complete control over the medical establishment, which meant discrediting female practitioners, usually midwives, and dismissing them as witches. (This was actually the subject of an organized campaign by the all-male American Medical Association in the 1850s.)

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And so abortifacients and their cousins emmenagogues, herbs that encourage menstrual flow, went underground. But not very far. Throughout the 1800s, female physicians, who generally went under the title “Madame” instead of “Dr.,” would advertise their services on the pages of ordinary newspapers. Here’s one that ran in the New York Herald in 1842, amid ads for wigs, pianos, stenography and accordion lessons, and the Shielded Victoria Shawl and Diaper Pin:

A newspaper ad for Madame Restell from the New York Herald, October 10, 1842
A newspaper ad for Madame Restell from the New York Herald, October 10, 1842
Screenshot: Library of Congress
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Madame Restell was clearly counting on male readers not to notice or care about anything having to do with private lady issues. She was by far the best-known and most successful of these 19th-century specialists in female medicine—when she died in 1878, her estate was valued at $600,000, or about $15 million today—but there were plenty of others. (On this same newspaper page, Madame Costello was also advertising her services, and an ad for Valier’s French Pills promised a remedy for “a certain disease” that would “prevent the possibility of discovery.”)

And look, here’s pennyroyal again, in the Daily Times of Richmond, Virginia, in 1889.

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A newspaper ad in the Richmond, Virginia, Daily Times, August 1, 1889
A newspaper ad in the Richmond, Virginia, Daily Times, August 1, 1889
Screenshot: Library of Congress

The herb itself was never banned. Household hints columns regularly recommended it as a way to get rid of ants.

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There is, of course, the question: “Did all this shit work?” Do you think we would be reliant on surgical and pharmaceutical abortions now if herbs were infallible? However: Modern scientists have performed experiments and discovered that—in rats, anyway—rue, ferula, and pennyroyal have certain properties that inhibit implantation of the blastula and prevent fetuses from developing. It’s also extremely likely that those midwives understood herbs and their properties and how individual women would react to different combinations a lot better than we do (it was their life’s work, after all). We can also assume that, like modern doctors, some of them were better at their jobs than others.

The Majority Report article reprinted in The Yipster Times, October 1, 1977
The Majority Report article reprinted in The Yipster Times, October 1, 1977
Screenshot: Reveal Digital (Fair Use)
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In 1977, a reporter for the underground feminist newspaper Majority Report had what she called a “diaphragm accident.” Inspired by a former subscription manager and part-time witch who kept a jar of pennyroyal on her kitchen shelf “in case her period was late,” she decided to try pennyroyal herself, for journalism. Her own period was four weeks late at this point.

The first store she tried, an herb store in Greenwich Village, was out, and referred her to a drugstore in the East Village, where she bought four ounces for $2.60. She described her experience to two of her fellow reporters, Virginia Cava-Rizzuto and Nancy Borman:

Every night before retiring she drank three coffeemugs full and took a hot bath. She said the tea made her high, induced perspiration, and brought on a slight cramp as early as the first night. For four days she joked about getting cramps but “no action” and didn’t believe it would work. But after the fifth treatment, she woke up with a severe cramp, bled heavily for a day, had back pains for two more days, lost all pregnancy symptoms and a few weeks later had a normal period.

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(What did it taste like? The article doesn’t say. The website Tea Infusion describes its flavor as “pungent and acrid... similar to pennyroyal’s relations, the spearmint or peppermint.”)

Inspired, another pregnant reporter tried both pennyroyal and black cohosh, but she wasn’t as successful. “You’ve heard of iron stomachs?” she told her colleagues. “Well, I have an iron uterus.”

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The reporters of Majority Report attempted to talk to doctors and herbalists in order to prepare an infallible guide to using herbal abortifacients. They were unsuccessful. Some were afraid of harassment by the FDA. Others were reluctant to give away their knowledge for free, since that was how they earned their living. Cava-Rizzuto and Borman concluded:

We decided to end this conspiracy of silence with this article. If abortifacient herbs don’t work, thousands of generations of healers were in error, and their simultaneous use by diverse cultures such as the American Indians and the European peasants was a coincidence. If they do work, women don’t need the o.k. of Jimmy Carter, Congress, the Supreme Court or the Pope to end their pregnancies; they can just pick some plants in their backyard and brew them into tea. And, if they do work, women will have succeeded at last in reducing the price of an abortion to approximately 65 cents.

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The editors prepared a list of emmenagogues and abortifacients and recipes for how to brew them into tea. The side effects, they claimed, were usually the cramps, backaches, and depression that generally accompany a miscarriage, but very seldom fever and infections that come with poorly done surgical abortions.

It’s unclear how many women used this guide or guides like it in ensuing years. Abortifacients are unregulated and today they’re consumed without much (if any) supervision, and information about how to use them is about as reliable as anything else on the internet, particularly if the person searching for that information is scared, poor, and/or desperate. Every so often, a newspaper article will appear about a young woman who attempted to end a pregnancy with pennyroyal and ended up killing herself instead, usually by overdosing. In one of these overdose cases, from 1978, an 18-year-old “died with an amount of fluid equivalent to one gallon of milk, 5.6 Starbuck’s Venti beverages, or fifty menstrual cycles in her belly,” as Kaye Wierzbicki wrote in The Toast. (By contrast, Majority Report recommended one ounce of pennyroyal steeped in one pint of water, with a chaser of a quarter-pint brewers yeast dissolved in juice. One tablespoon of pennyroyal essential oil, which is far more concentrated and which some women take by mistake, is the equivalent of 1,000 cups of tea. ) But, like data about people who drink a lot of alcohol without incident, there’s not much about women who used it responsibly and successfully.

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There’s one thing we do know, though: abortifacients go back way further than recorded history. And as long as the herbs are available and as long as women are getting pregnant and have no other reliable, affordable, and readily available options, it will keep going.

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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DISCUSSION

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While this is useful knowledge, it would also behoove us to VOTE FOR GOVERNMENT REPRESENTATIVES WHO WILL PUSH BACK AGAINST ANTI-ABORTION LEGISLATION. Medical abortifacients should be cheap and readily available in every pharmacy, urgent care clinic and goddamned school nurse’s office, and surgical abortion should be regulated like any other outpatient surgical procedure.

Make no mistake, the end game of the anti-abortion crowd is not overturning Roe, it’s overturning Griswold. I am old enough that it doesn’t matter to me personally, but younger women, beware and be aware. Know your history.