When crocodile poop failed as a contraceptive, women needed options.
While abortion continues to be a source of political divisiveness around the world today, and with an anti-choice doctor poised to head the department of Health and Human Services, it's important to note that it's a practice women have been using for millennia. The different methods for carrying out an abortion have varied across time and geography, but history makes it clear that women have needed—and found—ways to have abortions practically forever, controversy be damned.
Of course, the need for abortions sometimes comes out of shoddy contraceptive options. And those abounded in the days of yore. Take crocodile feces, for example. This was slathered over the opening of the cervix, and was thought to prevent sperm from making its way to any potentially waiting eggs. Other "vaginal plugs" that were used to prevent pregnancy were made of everyday items like seaweed.
Throughout time, various abortion practices have been used to terminate pregnancies when contraceptive methods of all kinds have failed. Here are a few.
One of the earliest known depictions of any abortion procedure is to be found in a massive bas-relief sculpture from around 1150 in Cambodia, which shows a "massage abortion." The bas-relief is "an expression of a well-ordered celestial kingdom, and it brings together both Hindu and Buddhist teachings," according to a paper authored by professor Malcolm Potts and his colleagues at Berkeley's School of Public Health.
Though it's called a massage abortion, this method is far from anything relaxing or soothing. It's really more like blunt force. The sculpture shows naked, pregnant women stacked on top of one another, and other women being beaten in the abdomen with pestles. Potts and his colleagues note that in this region, abortion was both permitted and condemned at the same time by different religions or sects.
To this day, massage abortion remains in use throughout several Southeast Asian countries, despite how dangerous and painful it is. A traditional birth attendant will apply pressure to a pregnant woman's abdomen using various body parts or a large pestle until vaginal bleeding occurs, indicating that the fetus has been aborted.
Herbs, tinctures, and bear feet
Herbal abortion methods have been around since ancient days as well, and never really stopped being pervasive.
In ancient Greece, the philosopher Aristotle said that women should use cedar oil or "ointment of lead" mixed with olive oil, and insert that combination into the vagina to induce abortions. Aristotle also wrote in Politics that population control was essential for maintaining a good society, even if that meant using birth control or abortion methods.
Pedanius Dioscorides, a physician and botanist who lived from 40 to 90 AD, also recommended a mixture of honey and daphne plant be used as a suppository to "draw down the embryo." This practice is recorded as having been effective.
In Europe during the Middle Ages, herbs were in use to induce abortions, as evidenced by, among other things, records of an herbalist slut-shaming a woman who had successfully used his remedies for an abortion, telling the whole town her name and saying, "the whore should have paid for them." Around the same time in Somerset, a man told his pregnant girlfriend to get rid of the pregnancy through perhaps the least-tasty sounding medicine of all time: "Take bear's foot and savin boiled, and drink it in milk, and likewise, hay madder chopt, and boiled in beer and drink it to destroy the child in her."
Mary Fissell, professor of medical history at Johns Hopkins University, says that later during the early modern period in Europe, and recurring throughout what little historical record there is of abortion over the centuries, herbs such as the common pennyroyal were commonly grown and could have been taken by women to induce abortions. But as Fissell points out, women could have taken these herbs simply to regulate their menstrual cycle. A regular menstrual cycle was considered imperative for a woman's physical health, and some of the same herbs that could be used to cause an abortion were also recommended for restoring regular periods.
The abortion pill and the earliest clinics
In the US, facilities that contemporary people would consider to be abortion clinics began to appear as early as the 19th century. In these places, Fissell says, female abortionists would provide their clients with an herbal abortion pill, and if the pill did not yield the desired results, a surgical abortion was performed. The existence of these facilities grew out of the commercialization of urban sex In Europe, where prostitution was extremely popular. With this also came more easily available—albeit not fully legal—abortion services for women.
One of these most famous abortion providers, Madame Restell, operated in New York City (on 5th Avenue no less), for 40 years, removing "obstructions" associated with "female trouble." Restell offered the same sort of herbal remedies that had been in use for ages by this point, but she was able to operate a booming business selling them in the form of pills, and providing additional abortion services when the pills didn't work.
The abortion pill that is available for use now, Mifepristone, was not developed until the 1980s, and was not FDA-approved in the US until 2000, but women have been using commercially provided pills for abortion for centuries. Even in the United States, there is evidence of women obtaining pills from doctors for abortion as early as the colonial period, according to Fissell. In fact, abortion pills were being handed out by doctors before the Declaration of Independence was even written. In 1742, A young woman became pregnant with her boyfriend, and it's recorded that the boyfriend coerced his pregnant significant other to have an abortion.
"Women have been performing abortions forever," Fissell says. "It's always been part of the reproductive landscape. When women can't get safe methods, they will reach out for unsafe methods." There's something to be said about the many ways that women have sought reproductive autonomy throughout time, and even more to be said about the need for safe and accessible abortion. If the history of abortion shows us anything, it's that it is necessary for women, and is unlikely to ever disappear from the medical landscape.