Bodily autonomy is our right as women. It is our right as human beings. While there are constant political and legal attacks being made on women’s bodies, there is still a world of knowledge at our fingertips to better arm us against what looks to be an awful lot like the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale. Our natural ancestors — especially those who dabbled in the arts of cunning craft and herbal medicine — knew exactly how to discreetly care for women’s medical needs. We should hold this knowledge as well. The following article will discuss some of the discreet ways our ancestors prevented and ended unwanted pregnancies, during times when women had far fewer rights than we have even now. As a disclaimer, I want to note that this article is in no way endorsing any of the techniques and tips mentioned hereafter. This article is intended for informational purposes only.
Pennyroyal Tea is more than just a popular song by Nirvana. It’s actually a medicinal drink made from Mentha pulegium (also known simply as pennyroyal). This tea has been used throughout history to treat a variety of ailments — especially issues surrounding menstruation. Pennyroyal is a pretty unpredictable plant, meaning that the dosage for the tea isn’t really consistent and can have varying effects on different people. That’s why there are so many stern warnings against consuming it. Pennyroyal is known as an abortifacient, meaning it can be used to end unwanted pregnancy. However, the dosage needed to cause an abortion is also dangerously close to the lethal amount. This means that if you ingest pennyroyal tea to cause an abortion, you run an incredibly high risk of poisoning yourself to death.
Black Cohosh is another natural abortifacient. In particular, the root of this plant is the most dangerous for consumption during the first trimester of pregnancy. That means, if you were to ingest this herbal remedy to cause abortion, the ideal time would be in the first couple of months of pregnancy. Black Cohosh is also known as Cimicifuga racemosa, and grows naturally all over the United States and parts of Canada.
Plants that contain thujone are also considered dangerous to ingest during pregnancy. Wormwood, yarrow, some sages, tansy and several other plants contain thujone. Mugwort also contains thujone, which is why it is used to expel fetal tissue after miscarriage via an herbal tea.
Ingesting Aloe Vera during pregnancy in large amounts could cause miscarriage due to high levels of compounds that cause uterine contractions.
Dong Quai tea — an herbal tea blend often used for menstrual issues — could cause miscarriage if large amounts are drank during early pregnancy.
Black Hellebore tea is also an effective abortifacient, and is also used to increase menstrual blood flow. This is an ancient remedy for unwanted pregnancy and difficult menstruation, which was also used by ancient Greek people.
Scary-but-effective ancient methods
Our ancient ancestors sought abortions for unwanted or dangerous pregnancies just as we do in the modern era. Some of the earliest recorded abortions were as far back as 1500 B.C.E. And the methods used by these ancient people ranged from uncomfortable to potentially disfiguring — or worse.
Strenuous exercise, heavy lifting and absorbing blows to the abdomen have always been used to end pregnancy. This was no different thousands of years ago in Assyria, Greece and throughout the Roman Empire. Egyptian texts from the premodern era indicate that women paddled themselves in the stomachs, lifted weights and dove from tall heights in order to induce miscarriage. Women also began tightening their girdles and wearing binding garments to purposely restrict themselves and miscarry — or else force premature labor, which often ended in the death of the newborn. This particular method has also persisted into the modern era, but was most popular during the medieval era throughout Europe, Asia and even among the Maori people during colonization.
Other methods included pouring scalding hot water over a pregnant woman’s stomach, or laying flat on top of heated rocks and shells. The extreme he at was believed to injure the fetus to the point of miscarriage — though it’s hard to tell just how effective this technique really is, as it seems to be rather painful and potentially scarring for the woman.
Of course, the dangerous act of using something long and sharp — such as a coat hanger, sharpened stick or other object — is also as old as time. Surgical abortion existed even in the ancient era, though it was far less common. No woman should ever attempt a surgical abortion at home, as it could prove fatal.
With all of the ways women have controlled their own reproductive health throughout history, it should go without saying that laws attacking women’s rights will do little to actually stop abortion. In Texas of all places — even prior to the passing of their recent anti-abortion legislation — thousands of women have relied on natural medicine to prevent and end unwanted pregnancy. According to the Texas Policy Evaluation Project (of the University of Texas) at least 100,000 Texas women attempted home abortions between 2014 and 2015. Again, these incidents took place six years ago — prior to abortion being effectively banned in the state of Texas. The methods of choice according to the study appeared to be black cohosh, various herbal blends, vitamins and so-called abortion pills sold online. Now that abortion is essentially illegal in Texas, will the number of women seeking abortion through natural means increase? Absolutely — because making abortion illegal doesn’t stop abortions from happening, it just criminalizes them and takes away access to safe medical abortion.
Women should have the absolute right to make decisions regarding our bodily autonomy — and abortion shouldn’t be excluded from this. Our ancestors faced similar attacks on their rights — and many had no rights at all depending on the era. Nonetheless, they knew how to control their own bodies with knowledge of herbal medicine and their bodies.