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The terrifying history of herbal abortion medicines

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As long as people have been getting pregnant, they've been looking for ways to end their pregnancies. Sometimes these ways have worked. Sometimes they haven't. We're going to take a quick look at the history of abortifacient herbs, and be very, very happy we live in the present.

One of the best parts of modern chemical birth control is the fact that it prevents pregnancy in the first place. It was not always so. Chemical birth control used to be something that people turned to after conception. And like most types of birth control before the twentieth century, it was a nasty business. It was not, however, always an illegal business - at least until four months into the pregnancy. There were always drugs, either grown in the garden or sold for other purposes, that at the least made spontaneous chemical abortions more likely. The chemicals meant to 'bring on the monthly waters' were not generally acknowledged, but they were also not illegal, either to grow or sell. Historical accounts have women regularly obtaining them, and even entire recipe books. It was only towards the 1820s that laws restricting their use went into effect, and those were poison control laws, not laws restricting abortion.


Even when the law started cracking down, it took decades before the pills were stamped out of existence. In America, Anne Lohman, an untrained doctor's assistant, took the name Madame Restell and declared herself a "female physician." She had a Fifth Avenue clinic in mid-1800s New York where she performed abortions, and also had salesmen that crossed the country selling "Preventive Powders and Female Monthly Pills." She advertised in newspapers. She was notable for her financial success in the birth control business, but not much else. Plenty of people sold similar stuff quite openily. Adds for powders and pills could be found in the back of most women's magazines.


Restell's preventative powders were almost certainly bogus. The monthly pills, though, contained herbs that did increase the odds of abortion. When these didn't work, Restell channeled women to her abortion services. The overall package made her massively rich. It also earned her the title of "The Wickedest Woman in New York," and constant arrests and sting attempts by law enforcement services. Throughout Restell's forty year practice, the laws against giving out any birth control information or services became progressively harsher, and so when she was finally arrested by Anthony Comstock himself, she killed herself rather than face trial.

But what was she, and women like her back through history, peddling? What were any of these drugs and what did they do? One thing is certain; they didn't ensure an abortion. Even silphium, a birth control method so supposedly foolproof that it was driven to extinction by the Romans, isn't thought to be practically useful. Generally early chemical abortifacients fell into two categories - herbs that induced uterine contractions and stimulated blood flow, and herbs that outright poisoned people.


The method used by most providers was the one that poisoned people. When the person took these the abortion was a the body's reaction to the damage it was taking. Women who couldn't get hold of anything else would dump turpentine in their tea and hope for the best. Restell, although reputedly running a safe surgical abortion clinic, was first arrested when a woman confessed to her husband that she had bought a phial of abortifacient from Restell that turned out to contain turpentine and tansy. Tansy is a flower that is a natural insect repellent. It has toxic chemicals that kill intestinal parasites, and so was used in medieval Europe as a way to kill intestinal worms. Today, its toxic properties cause it to be heavily regulated by the FDA. Ingesting it, and most guides suggested ingesting it daily for nearly a week to bring on an abortion, can cause convulsions, weakened pulse, and death.

Other such concoctions contained pennyroyal, which is a cooking herb when used fresh or dried. Pennyroyal oil, on the other hand, is toxic. Either through ignorance or as a deliberate attempt to ensure an abortion, sometimes women put the oil in their pills and either got very sick or died. Toxic abortifacients were not just harmful to women, but harmful to the fetus. If women who tried aborting this way carried to term, their children were likely to have birth defects. And even the most severe methods were nowhere near sure. The only thing any herb did was increase the odds.


Herbs that stimulated blood flow in the uterus would also, occasionally, bring on abortions. They were called emmanogogues, and the more well-known among them was parsley root, ginger, and chamomile. As most people reading this know, these are all foods, and food that are not warned against by doctors. Occasionally huge amounts of things like parsley might bring on contractions, but certainly don't do any such thing in normal amounts. Certain options, like cohosh, were used to bring on contractions, but also upped the chance of stroke, loss of blood pressure, extremely painful headaches, and pain in the arms and legs. At least these drugs didn't flat out poison people though.

Poisonings were incredibly common, both as a last-ditch method or as a way of getting to a hospital in such bad shape that the hospital itself would perform the procedure. Tragic misconceptions, however, plagued the population. Many women tried to abort with high doses of quinine. While this can be terrible for a person in high doses, it's actually relatively safe for a pregnancy. Very high doses wouldn't be at all likely to end the pregnancy, but would shut down a woman's kidneys. Women would still attempt it though, because it was some kind of over-the-counter medicine with some kind of vague reputation.


All possible abortifacients, even those given out by people who knew what they were doing and consciously tried to minimize the risks associated with them, were kept popular mostly out of desperation. With no other options, women would turn to anyone and anything that might help them. What dropped them out of circulation almost entirely has been the ability to get safe, reliable birth control both before and after conception.

Top Image: Daniel Feliciano

Tansy Image: Evelyn Simak

Via NCBI twice, The Atlantic, BBC,, Slingshot, Victorian Gothic, and Feministe.