History of Abortifacients as posted on Wikipedia ~ 2023

by faithgibson on June 2, 2023


The medical literature of classical antiquity often refers to pharmacological means of abortion; abortifacients are mentioned, and sometimes described in detail, in the works of AristotleCaelius AurelianusCelsusDioscoridesGalenHippocratesOribasiusPaul of AeginaPlinyTheodorus PriscianusSoranus of Ephesus, and others.[16]
In ancient Babylonian texts, scholars have described multiple written prescriptions or instructions for ending pregnancies. Some of these instructions were explicitly for ingesting ingredients to end a pregnancy, whereas other cuneiform texts discuss the ingestion of ingredients to return a missed menstrual period. This phrase has been used repeatedly throughout history as a coded reference to abortion.
To make a pregnant woman lose her foetus: …Grind nabruqqu plant, let her drink it with wine on an empty stomach, [then her foetus will be aborted].”[17]
Ancient silver coin from Cyrene depicting a stalk of Silphium
The ancient Greek colony of Cyrene at one time had an economy based almost entirely on the production and export of the plant silphium, which had uses ranging from food to a salve for feral dog bites. It was also considered a powerful abortifacient used to “purge the uterus”.[18] Silphium figured so prominently in the wealth of Cyrene that the plant appeared on coins minted there.
In the Bible, Biblical scholars and learned Biblical commentators view the ordeal of the bitter water (prescribed for a sotah, or a wife whose husband suspects that she was unfaithful to him) as referring to the use of abortifacients to terminate her pregnancy. The wife drinks “water of bitterness,” which, if she is guilty, causes the abortion or miscarriage of a pregnancy she may be carrying.[19][20][21][22][23][24][25] The Biblical scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky has disputed the interpretation that the ordeal of the bitter water referred to the use of abortifacients.[26]
The medieval Islamic physician Ibn Sina documented various birth control practices, including the use of rue as an abortifacient.[27] Similarly, 11th-century physician Constantine the African described multiple abortifacient herbs, which he classified by order of their intensity, starting with abortifacients that had weaker effects on the body and ending with the most potent substances.[28]
Carl Linnaeus, known as the “father of botany”, listed five abortifacients in his 1749 Materia medica.[29]: 124  According to the historian of science Londa Schiebinger, in the 17th and 18th centuries “many sources taken together – herbals, midwifery manuals, trial records, Pharmacopoeia, and Materia medica – reveal that physicians, midwives, and women themselves had an extensive knowledge of herbs that could induce abortion.”[29]: 124–125  Schiebinger further writes that “European exploration in the West Indies yielded about a dozen known abortifacients.”[29]: 177 
For Aboriginal people in Australia, plants such as giant boat-lip orchid (Cymbidium madidum), quinine bush (Petalostigma pubescens), or blue-leaved mallee (Eucalyptus gamophylla) were ingested, inserted into the body, or were smoked with Cooktown ironwood (Erythrophleum chlorostachys).[30][page needed]
Historically, the First Nations people of eastern Canada used Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodwort) and Juniperus virginiana to induce abortions.[31]
According to Virgil Vogel, a historian of the indigenous societies of North America, the Ojibwe used blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) as an abortifacient, and the Quinault used thistle for the same purpose.[32]: 244  The appendix to Vogel’s book lists red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), American pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides), tansyCanada wild ginger (Asarum canadense), and several other herbs as abortifacients used by various North American Indian tribes.[32]: 289–290, 339, 380, 391  The anthropologist Daniel Moerman wrote that calamus (Acorus calamus), which was one of the ten most common medicinal drugs of Native American societies, was used as an abortifacient by the LenapeCreeMoheganSioux, and other tribes; and he listed more than one hundred substances used as abortifacients by Native Americans.[33]
Following a tradition among European and English authors, colonial Americans were advised by Benjamin Franklin to use careful measurements in his recipe for an abortifacient that he used as an example in a book he published to teach mathematics and many useful skills.[34]
The historian Angus McLaren, writing about Canadian women between 1870 and 1920, states that “A woman would first seek to ‘put herself right’ by drinking an infusion of one of the traditional abortifacients, such as tansy, quinine, pennyroyal, rue, black hellebore, ergot of rye, sabin, or cotton root.”[35]
During the American slavery period, 18th and 19th centuries, cotton root bark was used in folk remedies to induce a miscarriage.[36]
In the 19th century Madame Restell provided mail-order abortifacients and surgical abortion to pregnant clients in New York.[37]
Early 20th-century newspaper advertisements included coded advertisements for abortifacient substances which would solve menstrual “irregularities.” Between 1919 and 1934 the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued legal restraints against fifty-seven “feminine hygiene products” including “Blair’s Female Tablets” and “Madame LeRoy’s Regulative Pills.”[38]


For much of history, ending a pregnancy prior to “quickening” (the moment when a pregnant woman first feels fetal movement) did not have the type of legal or political restrictions and taboos found in the 21st century.[38] Early medieval laws did not discuss abortion prior to quickening. The early Catholic church held that human life began at “ensoulment” (at the time of quickening), a continuation of Roman norms and positions on the use of abortifacients prior to quickening.[39][40][41]
In English law, abortion did not become illegal until 1803.[42] “Women who took drugs before that time [quickening] would describe their actions as ‘restoring the menses’ or ‘bringing on a period’.”[43]
At that time, abortion after quickening became subject to the death penalty. In 1837, the significance of quickening was removed, but the death penalty was also abandoned.


  1. ^ Kumar, Dinesh; Kumar, Ajay; Prakash, Om (6 March 2012). “Potential antifertility agents from plants: A comprehensive review”Journal of Ethnopharmacology140 (1): 1–32. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2011.12.039ISSN 0378-8741PMID 22245754.
  2. ^ “Medical abortion – Mayo Clinic”www.mayoclinic.org. Retrieved 30 June 2020.
  3. ^ “Medical abortion – Mayo Clinic”www.mayoclinic.org. Retrieved 1 July 2020.
  4. Jump up to:a b Borgatta, Lynn; Kapp, Nathalie (July 2011). “Labor induction abortion in the second trimester”. Contraception84 (1): 4–18. doi:10.1016/j.contraception.2011.02.005PMID 21664506.
  5. ^ “Medical management of abortion”www.who.int. Retrieved 21 July 2020.
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  7. ^ Research, Center for Drug Evaluation and (12 April 2019). “Questions and Answers on Mifeprex”FDA.
  8. ^ “Pitocin – FDA.gov” (PDF). FDA – Drug Safety and Availability.
  9. ^ PubChem. “Dinoprostone”pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved 21 July 2020.
  10. ^ “Dinoprostone (Vaginal Route) Proper Use – Mayo Clinic”www.mayoclinic.org. Retrieved 21 July 2020.
  11. ^ “Misoprostol: MedlinePlus Drug Information”medlineplus.gov. Retrieved 21 July 2020.
  12. ^ Reinholz, Lou (2011). “Textbook of Pediatric Emergency Medicine Sixth Edition”. Pediatric Emergency Care27 (2): 163–164. doi:10.1097/pec.0b013e31820a9a4fISSN 0749-5161.
  13. ^ Romm A (2010). “Chapter 11: Pregnancy and Botanical Medicine Use and Safety”. Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health. Churchill Livingstone. pp. 321–324. doi:10.1016/B978-0-443-07277-2.00013-1. (subscription required)
  14. ^ Anderson IB, Mullen WH, Meeker JE, Khojasteh-BakhtSC, Oishi S, Nelson SD, Blanc PD (April 1996). “Pennyroyal toxicity: measurement of toxic metabolite levels in two cases and review of the literature”. Ann. Intern. Med. (Review). 124 (8): 726–34. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-124-8-199604150-00004PMID 8633832S2CID 24375611.
  15. ^ Prioreschi, Plinio (1995). “Conception and Abortion in the Greco-Roman World”. VesaliusI (2): 78.
  16. ^ BÖCK, Barbara (2013). “Medicinal Plants and Medicaments Used for Conception, Abortion, and Fertility Control in Ancient Babylonia”. Journal Asiatique301 (1): 37. doi:10.2143/JA.301.1.2994459ISSN 1783-1504.
  17. ^ Gorvett, Zaria. “The mystery of the lost Roman herb”www.bbc.com. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
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  22. ^ Olson, Dennis T. (1996). Numbers: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 36. ISBN 0664237363.
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  27. Jump up to:a b c Schiebinger, Londa (2004). Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674014879.
  28. ^ Delâge, Denys (2006). “Aboriginal Influence on the Canadians and French at the time of New France”. In Christie, Gordon (ed.). Aboriginality and Governance: A Multidisciplinary ApproachPenticton Indian ReserveBritish Columbia: Theytus Books. p. 37. ISBN 1894778243.
  29. Jump up to:a b Vogel, Virgil J. (1970). American Indian Medicine. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0465030297.
  30. ^ Moerman, Daniel (1998). Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press. pp. 46–48, 782–801. ISBN 978-0881924534.
  31. ^ McLaren, Angus (1981). “Birth Control and Abortion in Canada, 1870-1920”. In Shortt, Samuel E.D. (ed.). Medicine in Canadian Society: Historical Perspectives. McGill/Queens University Press. p. 295. ISBN 0773503560.
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  34. Jump up to:a b Edwards, Stassa (18 November 2014). “The History of Abortifacients”Jezebel. Retrieved 25 August 2020.
  35. ^ Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood by Kristin Luker, University of California Press
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