The Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade 40 years ago today, legalizing abortion in the US. Some folks would like to see this law overturned, but abortion has been practiced about as long as women have been getting pregnant. “Abortion is a universal phenomenon, occurring throughout recorded history and at all levels of societal organization,” notes a report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Ignorance in this matter has persisted all throughout history as well. The Numbers book of the Bible describes the process of a priest administering an abortifacient to a woman suspected of infidelity. If she were pregnant with her husband’s baby, it would stay put. If it was another man’s baby, it would abort. (This brilliant and thoroughly sound approach to paternity testing reminds me of Todd Akin’s brilliant and thoroughly sound assessment of whether women can get pregnant from rape: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Sure, sure, you should absolutely have any say in this matter, Representative.)
When they weren’t be forced to ingest abortifacients to test their fidelity, women voluntarily sought to control their bodies using a variety of low-tech means, as described in the NIH report:
Abortion techniques are highly varied and include abortifacients, magic, mechanical methods (such as instrumentation, constriction, and insertion of foreign objects into the uterus), heat applied externally, strenuous physical activity, jolts to the body, and starvation.
Human babies are the most labor- and time-intensive young of the entire animal kingdom; it’s no wonder women go to dangerous lengths to have a say in their own role in reproduction. Some other colorful measures included ingestion of mercury, iron sulfates, herbs like hyssop and dittany, opium, madder root taken in beer, quinine, and, of course, crushed ants (?!). In Europe, the most commonly used herbs were likely tansy and pennyroyal. Pennyroyal is some toxic stuff; herbalists today don’t work with it. Tellingly, Kurt Cobain sang about drinking pennyroyal tea. Even more tellingly, he also wrote a song called “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” So, you know: avoid pennyroyal, whatever you do.