Not sure where to put this; but maybe it goes here.
“[The book] starts to prescribe basically all of the best-known herbal abortifacients and contraceptives that were circulating at the time,” Farrell said. “It’s just sort of a greatest hits of what 18th-century herbalists would have given a woman who wanted to end a pregnancy early.”
"It’s very explicit, very detailed, [and] also very accurate for the time in terms of what was known [ . . . ]
Farrell said the book was immensely popular, and she did not find any evidence of objections to the inclusion of the section.
“It didn’t really bother anybody that a typical instructional manual could include material like this,” she said. “It just wasn’t something to be remarked upon. It was just a part of everyday life.”
So much for the theory that the USA has no long history of allowing abortion.
I expect a whole lot of other people had the information – many of them women. But Franklin was in a position to publish it, and in a form that allows us to see that evidence today.
The point of its current relevance I think is not so much about Franklin – though he does count as a Founding Father and is certainly personally relevant to what the authors of the Constitution were thinking – but that, as the article says, there was no sign of any controversy at the time about including abortion advice in a book of ordinary household information. That indicates it wasn’t only Franklin, but the society in general, which thought that early abortion, at least, was entirely normal behavior that one wouldn’t expect there to be laws against.
Frankin himself didn’t refer to it as abortion. He presented it as being about regulating menstrual cycle. The contemporary writer is now saying it was about missing a period due to pregnancy, and that the cure was intended as an abortion instruction, but that’s not what Franklin wrote, and possibly not what he thought.
It’s even more glaring in the case of William Mather, another early writer who published what this writer claims are abortion instructions. Per the Slate writer “It includes an entry for “Terms provoked,” a heading also found under comparable medical books with abortifacient concoctions (where the “term,” or period, needs “provoking”). Unfortunately for Mather’s readers, however, he prescribes “stinking Arach,” or goosefoot, which is an emmenagogue (an agent to stimulate or regulate menstruation) but not a reliable abortifacient.” So Mather said it was about provoking a period and does not mention abortion, and the recipe was something which provokes periods and does not produce abortions, but the Slate writer is saying no, it was really about abortions, and Mather just gave a bad recipe. This seems like just seeing what you want to see.
At any rate, at a minimum it’s inaccurate to say that abortion was so unremarkable that it was nonchalently included in widely disseminated material, because even if you buy that Franklin meant abortion, he seemed to make a point of depicting it as something more benign.
Yes, if abortion was as matter-of-fact and widely accepted in Franklin’s time as Farrell claims, the condition referenced in the book wouldn’t have needed to be coyly referred to as “misfortune”. It’s unclear to me whether the suggested potions were to be used for menstrual irregularities or abortion.
A danger with stories like this is that they may lead women to consider at-home abortions with herbal concoctions that, while having have a long history of use, also lack proven safety and efficacy. Pennyroyal is casually cited as an abortifacient by Farrell, yet it can be seriously toxic.
“As an essential oil, pennyroyal will almost certainly kill anyone who uses it carelessly. The plant is often used as an ingredient in all-natural animal flea collars like the Naturally Best Herbal Dog Collar or the PetGuard Herbal Cat Collar, both priced at about six dollars. When ingested, one tablespoon of the essential oil is the equivalent of 1000 cups of pennyroyal herbal tea. Nausea, vomiting, fatigue, liver and kidney failure, hallucinations and seizures are all caused by pennyroyal oil overdoses — typically by young women seeking to self-induce their abortion. Since 1996, seventeen women have died from pennyroyal oil overdoses.”
Do-it-yourself abortions using herbal teas and the like may be an increasing consequence of the repeal of Roe v. Wade, with a cascade of deaths and serious injuries to rival those resulting from the ministrations of unqualified “back alley” abortionists. It’s not a problem of much concern to vehement anti-abortion rights activists, any more than deaths and grievous injuries from illicit hooch were to Prohibitionists.
I think that expecting people well over 200 years ago to use the exact terminology that’s in use now isn’t reasonable. The people quoted didn’t say “menstruation” or “period”, either. They said “courses” or “terms” – which would probably just confuse most modern readers, but was understood perfectly well by their audience. Franklin wasn’t “making a point of depicting it as something more benign”; he was just using normal language of the time.
When teenage girls were passing around rumors in the 1960’s (and I was one which is how I know) the rumors were along the lines of “running down stairs backwards might bring on your period!” This wasn’t a matter of discussing how to get your menses more regular; it was explicitly a matter of girls who were afraid they were already pregnant. We didn’t say “running down stairs backwards might cause an abortion”, because we thought of “abortion” as a surgical procedure. And the fact that the only way running down stairs backwards might cause an abortion would be by bringing on a terrible fall with severe injury had nothing to do with whether that was what was being talked about.
I expect that few if any of the recommendations were for "reliable abortifacient"s. The state of medicine at the time meant that a whole lot of medical advice in general included supposed remedies that didn’t work, or didn’t work reliably, and/or didn’t work safely. Bleeding a patient isn’t going to cure anything other than hemochromatosis, after all.
Hey, I remember somebody trying it! Not falling, that is, trying to run downstairs backwards. I think she got her period a couple of days later, though I doubt it had anything to do with the stair trick; I think she either wasn’t pregnant or had an early miscarriage, which is quite common.
If I’m remembering the rationale right, the idea was that the unusual vigorous movement might shake an embryo loose; which probably didn’t seem all that wild an idea at a time when some standard medical advice was that pregnant women shouldn’t take vigorous exercise.
But in any case I wasn’t really thinking about the techniques; I was thinking about the terminology – we called it “bringing on your period”.
And I had another thought: if the idea is that they were talking about regulating menstruation aside from pregnancy: seems to me that would be more a matter of trying to make it lessen or stop than to make it start. A period that doesn’t show up is no bother, except if it may indicate an unwanted pregnancy or some state of illness. A period that shows up too frequently, and/or with excessive bleeding, and/or with significant pain, and/or continues too long, most certainly is a bother – and such problems are quite common. I don’t have all of Franklin’s book, let alone of Mather’s – but if they’re giving advice about bringing on a menstrual period, and not immediately before or after in the same context giving advice about how to stop or lessen periods, then they’re not talking about regulating menstruation; they’re talking about ending pregnancy.
Lots of things are matter-of-fact and widely accepted but nevertheless routinely referred to by euphemisms. Just think of all the terms used, even now, instead of ‘I have to go take a shit’. The word “pregnant” used to be fairly shocking – I don’t know whether it was in late 1700’s USA, some of these things come and go.
Let’s all not forget to remember that the same Ben Franklin also advised that a young Man should conduct his Affairs (he called it “Commerce”) with older Women, with whom Children would not be irregularly produc’d.
And could equally well have been discussed using contemporary words; a factor which can apply to any concept, and to any type of concept.
So is speculating that in giving advice on how to get one’s period to come on he meant something entirely unrelated to abortion.
Aside from the first period, which can be taken to mean a degree of social as well as physical maturity, I have trouble thinking of any reason other than fear of pregnancy for a woman to be anxious for her period to start (unless maybe if it was the only excuse she ever got to lie down and rest). There are multiple reasons why she might be anxious for it to stop.
Why would you expect the term “abortion” to have been used in colonial times for non-surgical forms of “de-pregnantization”?
I think you’re really stretching it if you consider it in any way plausible that Franklin was just referring to non-pregnancy-related forms of menstrual irregularity, rather than being perfectly well aware (and knowing that his readers would have been perfectly well aware) that it was also applicable to pregnancy.
This strikes me as another example of imperfect understanding of contemporary attitudes. An unwanted pregnancy was “coyly” referred to as a “misfortune” not because the concept of terminating a pregnancy in particular was considered taboo and embarrassing, but because direct acknowledgement of a woman’s having had premarital sex, or sometimes just being explicit about women’s sexual and reproductive functions in any way, was considered taboo and embarrassing.
That’s why my first words in this thread were “Hard to know what to make of it”.
I certainly don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he meant abortion (though even if so, I think at a minimum he was using a euphemism and it’s incorrect to conclude that the notion was treated matter-of-factly at that time). But it’s also very possible that he didn’t.
Again: the use of a euphemism doesn’t mean that something’s not taken for granted. I don’t ask in a store ‘where can I take a piss’, I ask them whether they have a restroom. But it’s taken entirely for granted that everybody takes a piss multiple times every day.
(that’s kind of an odd phrasing, come to think of it. What one’s actually doing is leaving a piss.)
I would think the easiest indication of whether Franklin was talking about abortifacients (using language we wouldn’t use today) would be if the things he recommended were in fact abortifacients (or at least believes to be so in his day).