Research: Abortifacients, Emmenagogues & The History of Women’s Reproductive Health

Notes and research articles on my painting ‘The Harvest’, which you can find here


Emmenagogues are herbs which stimulate blood flow in the pelvic area and uterus; some stimulate menstruation. Women use emmenagogues to stimulate menstrual flow when menstruation is absent for reasons other than pregnancy, such as hormonal disorders or conditions like oligomenorrhea.


abortifacient (“that which will cause a miscarriage” from Latin: abortus “miscarriage” and faciens “making”) is a substance that induces abortion.

Source: wiki/Emmenagogue

Although it isn’t mentioned above (conveniently) it should also be noted that emmenagogues are also used to stimulate menstrual flow when menstruation is absent because of an unwanted pregnancy.

Since most of the commissioners, painters and doctors used to be men, the history of women, midwives and most importantly women’s health and medical choices tends to be invisible and/or restricted.

Interestingly anti-choice people have grown more virulent and intolerant in our modern era. Abortion/induced miscarriage in medieval times (Europe) was considered acceptable up until 6 months. Life wasn’t considered to exist until the foetus had ‘quickened’ or moved. Sometimes not even until birth.

Some interesting articles and research sources below

Medieval Csection
Medieval C Section. No anaesthetic.

“There was enormous demand, throughout the medieval, Tudor, and Stuart periods, for abortifacient herbs, with many effective recipes and a plentiful supply. John Gerard in his comprehensive Herbal (1597) names only four herbs commonly used to assist barren women with conception, against more than sixty herbs used to induce menstruation after one or two missed periods.

What will surprise most readers is that Christian women, in great numbers, used abortifacients during the first months of pregnancy with no greater scruple of conscience than when taking an emetic or a laxative for digestive ailments. For the first seventeen centuries of Christianity, no authority of record, either Catholic or Protestant, taught or suggested that the fetus during the first two or three months after insemination was a human being. Ensoulment or quickening was an act of God: in His own good time – typically, in the third or fourth month – God infused the dormant seed with a human soul, created ex nihilo. Christian embryology was modeled on observation of plant life: seeds deposited in the autumn show no sign of life until germination the spring, at which time one seed may become “alive” while the other rots in the ground, never to become a tree. Like transubstantiation, the doctrine of ensoulment mystified nature for the glory of God: it was deemed an essential point of Christian ontology that the individual life was created by an act of the Almighty in Heaven and not by a horizontal act of the parents. The child received nothing from its parents but flesh and blood, and its innately sinful condition. ”

via Reproductive Rights Vol. 2

Peacock Flower 3
Peacock flower growing in my mother’s garden

The aptly named Peacock Flower (Poinciana pulcherrima). The flowers, seeds, barks and roots are reportedly used as emmenagogues and abortifacients.

Another South-asian abortifacient is the green papaya. The toxin in the unripe fruit can cause first trimester miscarriages. wild carrot soup (daucus carota) is also popularly used.

Peacock Flower Jezebel Illustration
Image by Jim Cooke, original illustration by Maria Sibylla Merian in the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam

“The peacock flower (or flos pavonis) – One of the most striking records of the plant comes from German-born botanical illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian who, in her 1705 book Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam, recounts: “The Indians, who are not treated well by their Dutch masters, use the seeds [of this plant] to abort their children, so that their children will not become slaves like they are. The black slaves from Guinea and Angola have demanded to be well treated, threatening to refuse to have children. They told me this themselves.”

Merian’s own account of the peacock flower is a vast departure from her contemporaries and a truly remarkable record. Though short, her description ascribes rationality to the act of abortion which, in the hands of Surinam’s slave women, is an act of resistance: a reclamation of their bodies and reproductive processes—neither of which, by legal standards of the eighteenth century, they owned. Equally striking about Merian’s description is the plainness of her language, her open usage of the word “abortion,” and the directness of the plant’s illicit uses. Merian does not moralize about the usage of the seeds: she simply conveys what other women have told her.”

Source: The History of Abortifacients 

Artemisia absinthum (Wormwood)
Artemisia absinthum (Wormwood)

“This ninth century recipe appeared in the Lorsch Manuscript, a medical treatise written by Benedictine monks:

A Cure for All Kinds of Stomach Aches
For women who cannot purge themselves, it moves the menses.

8 oz. white pepper
8 oz. ginger
6 oz. parsley
2 oz. celery seeds
6 oz. caraway
6 oz. spignel seeds
2 oz. fennel
2 oz. geranium/ or, giant fennel
8 oz. cumin
6 oz. anise
6 oz. opium poppy

These recipes did not come out of the blue. There is evidence that similar abortifacients had been used as far back as ancient Egypt. Pepper had been used since the Roman period as a contraceptive, and fennel is related to silphium, the ancient plant farmed to extinction for its contraceptive properties. The other ingredients have been found to have antifertility effects, and the opium was used as a sedative.

In addition to those mentioned above, artemisa and juniper were both known to inhibit fertility. Artemisia is a genus of plant in the daisy family asteraceae. There are more than two hundred types of artemisia, among them mugwort, tarragon, and wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe centuries later. In the twelfth century, Trotula recommended artemisia as a “menstrual stimulator” and in the thirteenth century, Arnald of Villanova advised taking it with capers for maximum efficacy. Modern medicine has confirmed its use: artemisia inhibits estrogen production and can prevent ovulation much like pharmaceutical contraceptives today.

Artemisia was not without its side effects. Wormwood is a notorious toxin known to cause hallucinations and changes in consciousness. Ingested in large quantities, it can cause seizures and kidney failure. (2)

Juniper had been used as a contraceptive since the Roman period. Pliny the Elder recommended rubbing crushed juniper berries on the penis before sex to prevent conception. Its popularity continued throughout the Middle Ages; Arabic medical writers Rhazes, Serapion the Elder, and ibn Sina all list it as an abortifacient, and this knowledge was made more readily available throughout Europe when Gerard of Cremona translated their words in the twelfth century. According to ibn Sina, juniper produced an effect very similar to a natural miscarriage, and so it could be employed without detection.

Historian John Riddle argues that all women knew which plants inhibited fertility and how to use them effectively. They were under no illusions as to their purpose. Although most of what we know about medieval contraception and abortion does come from medical texts written by men, they would have come by the information from women who were using it on a regular basis.

source: Sex, Contraception, and Abortion in Medieval England

Abortifacient: Cotton Root Bark
Abortifacient: Cotton Root Bark

In one report, Saint Cainnech of Aghaboe (Saint Canice) is said to have “blessed the belly” of a pregnant nun – making the baby disappear instantly. In another account, Saint Ciarán of Saigir rescued a nun named Bruinnech after she was abused by a local king. The report claims ,

“When the man of God returned to the monastery with the girl, she confessed that she was pregnant. Then the man of God, led by the zeal of justice, not wishing the serpent’s seed to quicken, pressed down on her womb with the sign of the cross and forced her womb to be emptied.”

Statue of Saint Canice, Catholic St.Canice Church, Kilkenny, Ireland. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Statue of Saint Canice, Catholic St.Canice Church, Kilkenny, Ireland. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

But Saint Brigid is perhaps the most well-known saint linked to abortions in Ireland. Stories saythe saint met a young woman who had an unwanted pregnancy and “Brigid, exercising with the most strength of her ineffable faith, blessed her, caused the fetus to disappear without coming to birth, and without pain.” This was recorded in 650 AD, making it the oldest account of an abortion in Ireland.

Source: Did Irish Medieval Saints perform abortions?

Dittany at Heraklion Archeological Museum (Photo by me)

“Dittany (Dictamnus albus), a herb of the mint family, was believed by the Greeks and Romans to induce menstruation and to expel a dead (or live?) fetus. It has both contraceptive and abortive effects. About 3 g of dittany seeds was given to terminate a pregnancy in the third month, less in earlier months.”

via Herbal contraceptives, abortifacients & birth control

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, considered a powerful abortifacient. Silphium figured so prominently in the wealth of Cyrene that the plant appeared on coins minted there. Silphium, which was native only to that part of Libya, was over-harvested by the Greeks and was effectively driven to extinction.

In aboriginal Australia, plants such as cymbidium madidum, petalostigma pubescens, Eucalyptus gamophylla were ingested or the body or vagina was smoked with Erythropleum chlorostachyum.

As Christianity and in particular the institution of the Catholic Church increasingly influenced European society, those who dispensed abortifacient herbs found themselves classified as witches and were often persecuted in witch-hunts.

Medieval Muslim physicians documented detailed and extensive lists of birth control practices, including the use of abortifacients, commenting on their effectiveness and prevalence. The use of abortifacients was acceptable to Islamic jurists provided that the abortion occurs within 120 days of conception, the time when the fetus is considered to become fully human and receive its soul.

In English law, abortion did not become illegal until 1803. English folk practice before and after that time held that fetal life was not present until quickening. “Women who took drugs before that time would describe their actions as ‘restoring the menses’ or ‘bringing on a period’.” Abortifacients used by women in England in the 19th century (not necessarily safe or effective) included diachylon, savin, ergot of rye, pennyroyal, nutmeg, rue, squills, and hiera picra, the latter being a mixture of powdered aloe and canella.

During the American slavery period, 18th and 19th centuries, cotton root bark was used in folk remedies to induce a miscarriage.

Source: wikipedia Abortifacient

Why A Pro-Life World Has A Lot of Dead Women In It

El Salvador has a “culture of life.” There, abortion is banned for any reason. Estimates from the Ministry of Health put the number of illegal abortions performed at 19,290 between 2005 and 2008. However, it’s difficult to trace illegal activity properly, so some other estimates claim this is closer to the annual average. We do know, from a 2011 study by the World Health Organization that 11 percent of the women undergoing these illegal abortions die. That is, at the bare minimum, over 2,000 women.

Amnesty International reports that suicide now accounts for 57 percent of deaths of pregnant females ages 10-19 in El Salvador. Because in an attempt to terminate their pregnancies, women are “ingesting rat poison or other pesticides, and thrusting knitting needles, pieces of wood and other sharp objects into the cervix.”

It was not so long ago that women in the United States were in a position similar to the one women in El Salvador find themselves in today.

Before the passage of Roe. Vs. Wade in 1973, it’s estimated that between 250 and 8,000 American women were dying per year of illegal abortions.

Today, in the United States, women experience complications from safe, legal abortion less than one percent of the time. And whether or not anyone talks about it, it’s a common medical procedure—30 percent of women in the U.S. have had a safe, legal abortion.

Source: Why A Pro-Life World Has A Lot of Dead Women In It

Abortion in America: In 2007, two disabled women complained about being forced to have abortions. Brett Kavanaugh, pro-lifer, ruled against them

Many Americans, probably most, understand the abortion debate to be about a struggle between the right of women to bodily autonomy and the “right to life” that anti-choicers claim embryos and fetuses have. In reality, as this case shows, the legal debate is really only about autonomy — so much so that an anti-choice judge like Kavanaugh ruled against women who wanted  to “choose life,” as conservatives say, rather than allow them a greater measure of autonomy.

“Maybe this is an uncharitable interpretation, but it really makes it clear, in my mind, that the issue isn’t abortion. It’s about controlling people,” Samantha Crane, legal director of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, told Salon.

The case is a complex one, but the basic story involved three women who received care from the District of Columbia Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration. All three women had intellectual disabilities and had been determined legally incompetent. One woman had an elective eye surgery and two had abortions, all chosen for them without any consideration of their wishes. The women argued that they had a right to have their wishes considered, but Kavanaugh ruled against them.

“It’s startling to see a judge say that the expressed wishes of people with disabilities are wholly irrelevant,” Jennifer Mathis, the deputy legal director the Bazelon Center of Mental Health Law, explained.

Source: Abortion in America: In 2007, two disabled women complained about being forced to have abortions. Kavanaugh ruled against them

Documents of interest on Abortifacients 

Academic Studies

Published by Janine Shroff

Designer & Illustrator based in London. I specialise in UI/UX, branding, hand-drawn illustration & painting.

2 thoughts on “Research: Abortifacients, Emmenagogues & The History of Women’s Reproductive Health

  1. The Harvest literally brought me to tears. It’s incredible that you’ve turned our research into something so moving. Thank you for providing so much important context here, and also for linking to us. We’re big fans. All the best!

    1. Thanks so much Jessica! Your comment really made my day. The research you guys are doing and writing about with regards to reproductive rights so invaluable and important, esp in these apparently worse than medieval times, so thank you!

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