How effective was ancient herbal abortion?

A stock character in a gazillion historical romance sagas whether forgettable bodice rippers or bestsellers (Mists of Avalon, The Red Tent), The Birth of Venus, etc.) is the wise woman who knows how to use herbs to help most any ailment. Almost all of these specifically address a woman giving potions and herbs to end unwanted pregnancies, usually harmlessly.

I know these are romanticized tellings, but I’ve wondered how much so. Were there reliable and safe herbal abortifacients in the ancient and medieval world? If there is a reliable and safe method, why did women resort to button hooks and sharp sticks?

It would seem to me that any potion powerful enough to induce a miscarriage would also make the mother violently, possibly even fatally ill, for it would most likely work by poisoning the woman and causing convulsions or fever to kill the foetus. Is this correct or… did the wise women really know what they were doing?

PS- The reason I’m curious is that I was just browsing over some Civil War editions of the New York Times. Almost any edition of the NYT from that era has countless potions for “restoring cycles” and “removing female impediments and obstructions”. Even though this was much later than the time frame in the OP, I’ve wondered if these patent medicines worked. It’s hard to imagine that the industry would have remained that lucrative if the elixirs had no success at all, but otoh the women of the time weren’t likely to have been instructed in how to or not to abort by their peer groups.

If you asking “was it quackery and snake oil or did some of this stuff work”, then yes, several herbal substances that were used in this manner do indeed have abortifacient properties.

Given that even modern laboratory-developed pharmaceuticals that get FDA approval after years of double-blind tests often prove to have dangerous side-effects or unanticipated drawbacks that get them yanked from the shelves, it’s difficult to say “Oh yeah, the thing with the mistletoe is effective in early 1st-trimester cases in 89% of cases without significant negative repercussions, mortality is less than 1.2% when used as directed, morbidity and atypical reactions are mostly confined to irritation and venous bleeding through the uterline lining, hypotension, tinnitus, and nausea, with complications most commonly observed in cases of incomplete detachment of the placenta, blah blah blah…”

The short answer: we don’t know.

The longer answer: Many of the plants referred to in ancient texts as either contraceptives or abortifacients are extinct or never existed. Therefore, it’s hard to measure their safety and efficacy. There’s another school of thought which says some of these plants are still around, but we’ve “forgotten” how to use them.

There’s a particular field of ethnobotany which examines old frescoes and paintings for clues as to medicinal uses of herbs, many of them suspected contraceptives and abortifacients. There’s a famous painting of Persephone, for instance (I’m forgetting who it’s by at the moment), holding a pomegranate with a bite taken out of it - skin and all, like you would an apple. Now, anyone who’s tasted pomegranate skin or pith knows that this is a mighty strange way to eat a pomegranate. But we now know that pomegranates have some contraceptive abilities, but only if you include the skin and pith in the dosing. The “bite” is exactly the daily dose of pomegranate which is suspected to be safe and effective. (There are trials on pomegranate extract being done as we speak.) It seems that this painting was in fact a “prescription” of sorts - a way for this controversial knowledge to be passed on in a way that wouldn’t get some old herbalist burnt at the stake for it.

As for the most commonly known and currently available abortifacients, you’re right, most of them rely on poisoning the embryo without killing the mother. It’s a risky endeavor, and should not be attempted by a layperson. It’s a fine balance between safety and effectiveness, and you run the risk of harming or deforming the embryo without killing it. I’ve studied herbalism for many years, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone without being VERY emphatic that this might not work, and if it doesn’t, a surgical abortion is required.

Most Civil War era potions relied less on herbs and more on heavy metals and high concentrations of alcohol to similarly poison the woman.

There is only one herb I’m comfortable recommending for contraception, and it must be taken in very high doses and on a very strict schedule, no mistakes allowed. Frankly, I think FAM is a better, cheaper and more effective method.

Most of the herbal abortificants either work by poisoning the fetus or causing contractions. They’re not particularly reliable, working at best about a third of the time (and can cause birth defects and complications in pregnancy if they don’t work), and can be dangerous to the mother.

For example, one major abortificant was pennyroyal, which, if you overdose on it, can cause uterine contractions. Overdosing on pennyroyal can also cause liver and kidney failure, brain swelling, blood clots, etc. The goal is to take enough of it to cause the contractions (and that also causes seizures, diarrhea, nausea and hemorrhaging), but not enough that it will kill you. Of course, there’s no way with wild pennyroyal to know the exact dosage, because the amount of the toxic chemicals in the pennyroyal depends on location, time of harvesting, and a lot of other factors.

Herbal abortificants are dangerous, and I urge any woman reading this who’s considering an abortion to stay away from herbal remedies.

A previous thread on the subject:

Doesn’t answer the OP directly, but the links might have the answer.

I had a college biology professor that was pretty confident in the abortifacent properties of pennyroyal tea, even told us how much it would take.

There was one quite well-known abortifacient in Roman times - a relative of fennel, I believe - that was so popular that it was exploited to extinction. Can’t remember exactly what it was called though.

Yes, silphium. It’s talked about in the linked thread. Now extinct.

Oh, and the only known deaths from pennyroyal were two young women who each drank an ounce of pennyroyal essential oil - far more concentrated than the tea. Equivalent to drinking gallons and gallons of tea in a very short period of time. Stupid, stupid girls. :frowning:

Effective? Absolutely. One of the clauses of the Hippocratic oath (as we have it) is not to administer a pessary for abortion. This is, presumably, because it was so damn dangerous. Nevertheless, there are references in other ancient texts, including Hippocratic ones, about methods and plants used for abortion. Another place I’m sure it’s mentioned is Soranus’ Gynaecology, although I haven’t read it in a while.

All I can tell you is that, unlike setting broken bones or something, this is one procedure for which I would be very thankful for modern medicine.

Weren’t there also the ancient equivalent of a diaphragm with spermicide? I can’t remember where I heard that or what it was, but women could insert a hemispherical object full of an herb that changed the pH of the vagina to be hostile to sperm. Anyone know what I’m talking about?

While everyone is on the topic I have a really silly question to ask.

How did people figure out that some plants were effective as b.c. and others weren’t? Was it just sort of a trial and error thing that occured over time or were there other clues as to what might be effective and what might not be?

Probably trial and error, noticing that if women ate a certain plant or fruit while pregnant, they would miscarry.

Considering that these days most people can’t figure out if it was the eggs we had for breakfast or the beans we had for lunch that’s giving us gas in the afternoon, I’m highly suspect of the “noticing” theory of herbal medicine discovery.

I find it much more likely that herbalists were early scientists with lots of time on their hands. A new plant would be tested by eating or drinking a very small amount of it, and any effects noted by the herbalist herself. In times when the known plants were unavailable or didn’t work, new plants would be tried based on the effects noted earlier by the tester.

The ones that baffle me are the complex compounds with five different ingredients which have to be prepared five different ways before being combined in order to produce any effects at all. It seems nearly impossible for that to arrise out of trial and error. If you ask (as I have), the herbalist who developed or uses it will tell you the plants’ spirits told him what to do. We might discount that as hogwash, but it’s what the people doing it believe is happening.

**Valentine **- there are often clues that can be used as a starting point for figuring out what a plant does. Demulcent plants (plants that soothe mucous membranes) are almost always fuzzy on the outside, for instance. I wouldn’t want to trust that as my final answer, but if you show me a soft plush leaf with lots of fuzzies, I’m going to take a wild stab that it’s a demulcent, and be looking for those effects in my testing.

Rubystreak, there have been dozens of things inserted vaginally to try to prevent pregnancy. Some had some effectivenes simply by being a barrier, others by irritating the cervix and causing dilation (much like an IUD). In addition to herbs, they included things like blood, grease, glass shards (!) and saint’s relics.