When doctors were unwilling to treat women, ancestral lore allowed them to care for themselves and each other.
Last month marked one year since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Dobbs case, which, for women and people with uteruses, made the possibility of becoming impregnated mean an utter loss of agency. Some would say we’ve returned to the pre-Roe v. Wade era, but it’s worse.
This version of our reproductive reality would be unrecognizable to the women of our past—not the ones who agitated for the right to reproductive choice that came with Roe v. Wade, but generations before them, long before rooms full of men in suits decided when and how we might be permitted to manage our fertility. When doctors were unwilling to treat women, ancestral lore allowed them to care for themselves and each other.
As a writer who spent the last two years researching the herbal remedies of the granny midwives of Appalachia for my novel in progress, I began with the question of how “abortion” worked before modern medicine. It turns out this question is far too specific: Women didn’t always have that language for stopping pregnancy from advancing. The contemporary imagination that draws lines between fertility, conception and personhood is relatively new.
In fact, there is a wealth of fascinating and actionable—if not peer-reviewed—historical wisdom on how to end a pregnancy.
I like to picture these women growing or foraging these herbs. I like to see them with their hands in the dirt, their noses in the leaves, their copper pots on the fire, managing another bodily need without fanfare. … Eventually, though, men got involved in women’s business.
More than 3,500 years ago, ancient Egyptian women combined the unripe fruits of the acacia tree with a small, bitter melon called colocynth, mixed them with a paste of dates and honey, and wrapped it all in leaves to create a vaginal suppository. In any trimester, the Ebers Papyrus of 1500 BCE suggested this would be an effective way to end a pregnancy.
Roughly 300 years later, the Old Testament included a recipe for a drink designed to make a woman miscarry: A combination of dust from the tabernacle floor, parchment on which a curse has been written, and holy water, this drink was recommended to end the pregnancies of women who had been unfaithful. This same part of the Bible was just used to justify banning abortions in South Carolina.
In the years that followed, women from every corner of the world found ways to “restore their menses.”
First-century Greek women used a wild plant called silphium both to prevent and end pregnancies.
First peoples in North America made a tea of an herb called western sagewort to induce miscarriage.
The women who those colonialists enslaved used cotton root—part of the medicinal knowledge they brought to North America from Africa—to end unwanted pregnancies.
If our country will not give us access to the healthcare they wrested from us, we will need to reclaim it somehow.
I like to picture these women growing or foraging these herbs. I like to see them with their hands in the dirt, their noses in the leaves, their copper pots on the fire, managing another bodily need without fanfare. There’s chamomile for upset stomachs, comfrey for aching bones, and tansy to bring on a period.
Eventually, though, men got involved in women’s business. Even one of the greatest heroes of American history, Benjamin Franklin, published herbal recipes to manage “the suppression of the courses“—aka a missed menstrual period—published under the pseudonym of George Fischer. It was a reprint of an old British all-purpose household manual, and he recommended a combination of bellyache bush and pennyroyal tea. Once successful, he suggests women stop longing for “pretty fellows” but offers no advice to the fellows about acting on their longing. Of course.
A hundred years after Ben Franklin mansplained pennyroyal to a generation of women who likely already knew what herbs to take (and which pretty fellows to avoid), the late 1800s brought about the entrenchment of modern gynecology, rooted in Dr. James Marion Sims’ brutal genital experimentation on enslaved Black women. Sims went on to treat white women, too (this time with anesthesia).
By this time, at least 40 distinct anti-abortion laws had been enacted in the U.S., most at the behest of the newly-formed American Medical Association, which was anxious to wrest power from the midwives and female healers who had, until that point, treated women on their own.
We all know where it went from there. With the dispensing of modern medicine to the elite and abortion made illegal in a chunk of the country so big you could drive for nine hours straight from El Paso, Texas, to Hedgesville, W.V., without having access to safe and legal abortion.
Our dearth of ancestral herbal knowledge has hamstrung us. Disconnected from the resourcefulness we cultivated before institutionalized science, women have come to rely on surgery and Western pharmaceuticals to end pregnancies they don’t wish to continue.
And so, I am planting a protest garden.
I have planted white yarrow, wormwood, rue and pennyroyal in small, unassuming pots not far from my tomatoes and zinnias. The tansy I planted last year just to see how it smelled has shot even higher this June, pointing ever upward toward me. I do not know how to use these herbs or in what combinations—and I am not expecting to need them—but cultivating them has felt like a small act of resistance and reconnection.
I hope this is silly, that I am romanticizing the copper pots and foraging of our pre-industrial foremothers, but if our country will not give us access to the healthcare they wrested from us, we will need to reclaim it somehow.
I await the flowers and the seeds.
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