Leeches, Lye and Spanish Fly
WHY would a woman put a leech inside her body, in the most private of female places? Why would she put cayenne pepper there?
Why might a woman swallow lye? Gunpowder? Why would a woman hit herself about the abdomen with a meat pulverizer? A brickbat? Throw herself down the stairs?
Why would she syringe herself, internally, with turpentine? Gin? Drink laundry bluing?
Why might she probe herself with a piece of whalebone? A turkey feather? A knitting needle?
Why would she consume medicine made of pulverized Spanish fly? How about powdered ergot, a poisonous fungus? Or strychnine, a poison?
Why would she take a bath in scalding water? Or spend the night in the snow?
Because she wanted to end a pregnancy. Historically, women have chosen all those methods to induce abortion. The first known descriptions appeared around 1500 B.C. in the Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text that mentioned an abortion engineered by a plant-fiber tampon coated with honey and crushed dates.
For most of history, abortion has been a dangerous procedure a woman attempted to perform on herself. In private. Without painkillers.
What is most striking about this history of probes and poisons is that throughout all recorded time, there have been women so desperate to end a pregnancy that they were willing to endure excruciating pain and considerable risk, including infection, sterility, permanent injury, puncture and hemorrhage, to say nothing of shame and ostracism. Where abortion was illegal, they risked prosecution and imprisonment. And death, of course.
The newspapers of the mid-1800s were full of advertisements for potions, pills and powders that claimed to cause miscarriage. “French Periodical Pills: Warranted to Have the Desired Effect in All Cases” was one such knowing ad that appeared in The Boston Daily Times in 1845. Those ads spoke euphemistically of “curing female complaint,” or “renovating” or “unblocking” the womb. They treated a problem that women called “suppression of the courses,” the idea being that monthly “turns” were the norm and that any cessation of normal periods meant they were “suppressed,” or that the womb was “obstructed.”
Many of the cures for these ‘ailments’ were nothing but sugar and dust. But some of them were nonetheless quite effective. Those were the dangerous ones, containing as they commonly did, turpentine, opium, pennyroyal, aloes, snakeroot, myrrh or oil of rue. One of the most common ingredients was ergot, or claviceps purpurea, a fungus found on the stalks of grain. Women as early as the 16th century had observed that cows that consumed ergot miscarried their calves. The fungus, however, had disastrous side effects, called ergotism, also known as St. Anthony’s fire. Symptoms included a burning sensation in the limbs because of blood constriction, which led to gangrene. The poison could also cause seizures, itching, psychosis, vomiting, contractions, diarrhea and death.
Oil of tansy was another common abortifacient. Here is John Irving’s unforgettable description, from his scrupulously researched novel ‘The Cider House Rules,’ of a doctor trying to save a woman after too many tansy-oil miscarriages: ‘Her abdomen was full of blood…but when he tried to sew up [the] uterus, his stitches simply pulled through the tissue, which he noticed was the texture of a soft cheese…his finger passed as easily through the intestine as through gelatin.’ Tansy oil rots internal organs.
Notwithstanding such ghastly scenarios, abortion did not always — or even usually — result in death. Many women survived it, which is why for most of history it was one of the main forms of birth control. If they did choose to enlist help, they most often called upon another woman, usually a skilled midwife. But by the 1850s, male doctors began to take over all aspects of women’s reproductive care, sidelining midwives and leading the movement to outlaw the practice of abortion. Did they save some women’s lives by unmasking the dangers of ‘medicines’ to cause miscarriage? Undoubtedly. But by withholding midwives’ knowledge of how to provide a relatively safe abortion in the early stage of pregnancy, they drove other women to undergo the procedure at the hands of the unskilled, until the United States Supreme Court made abortion legal on Jan. 22, 1973.