The draft opinion released by the U.S. Supreme Court last week, signed by Justice Samuel Alito, signaled the impending reversal of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade who legalized abortion in the United States.
In defense of the opinion, the conservative judge wrote that “the right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the history and traditions of the Nation”.
This may be correct insofar as these rights were not explicitly enshrined until the year when, under the pseudonym of Jane Roe, a woman who wanted an abortion in Texas, a state in the United States where it was illegal , filed a lawsuit against local district attorney Henry Wading. Certainly, the resulting ruling that Texas abortion laws were unconstitutional changed the law across the country.
But long before and after this “historical capitalized” moment, abortion is ingrained in the fine print of America’s history, as it is in the history of all mankind.
As Slate recently noted, while 18th century American polymath and founding father Ben Franklin wasn’t the only one to publish a recipe for abortion in a book, he was the first to do so in a book that became a bestseller: Frankin’s The Instructor (1748), an adaptation of a British tome, was considered a guide that every good American should have at home to promote proper functioning. The book was a general know-how guide for the American colonies, which taught everything from math to letter writing rules to various home care formulas, and also included this prescription for unwanted pregnancy:
“For this misfortune you must purge with Highland Flagg, (commonly called Bellyach Root) a week before you expect to be down; and repeat the same two days after; next morning drink a quarter pint of pennyroyal water, or decoction, with 12 drops of deer horn spirit, and the same again in the evening, when you go to bed Continue this course for 9 days, and after 3 days of rest, continue for 9 more days. [sic]
This detail in a book by the inventor of the lightning rod and bifocals is proof that abortion has been present in the lives of women around the world for centuries, and more particularly in the country where the practice is currently in danger. It is also an index of the dangers of aborting a fetus without proper regulation and/or medical care.
Natural remedies to induce abortion have been common at all times and in all places: the Greeks and Romans in the 7th century BC had a plant called sylphie whoamong its many medical properties, was administered with wine to women to induce vaginal bleeding and expel unwanted pregnancy.
Plants such as the highly toxic black hellebore or fungi such as ergot have also appeared in historical records as effective abortifacients. [substances that cause abortions].
As American historian John M. Riddle has argued, historical knowledge of abortion techniques is not usually found in written records – rather it belonged to an oral, female-centered culture, where until the 17th century century or so, women were in charge of reproduction and information was passed from grandmothers to mothers to daughters.
Finding written records, therefore, requires jumping back in time and reading between the lines: in 1699, another guide to everything was William Mather’s Young Man’s Companion, and included a recipe for inducing menstruation which recommended to mix ash (known for its laxative and slightly sedative properties) with “a few glasses of white wine under the full moon”.
In 1794, Carl Linnaeus, considered the father of botany, included five abortive herbs in his Materia medica. At the end of the 18th century, the place of abortion in private and public discourse in the United States began to change. In 1873, the Comstock Act was passed, a law which, among other rules on sexual morality, made it a crime to obtain, produce or publish information on contraception, sexually transmitted infections or abortion. An illustrative moment in the life of this law occurred in 1887 when Sarah Chase, a single New York mother and graduate of Cleveland Homeopathic College, was arrested while giving a lecture on sexuality. His talks were well known; in the end, she would have a series of contraceptive products for sale which were also available from her by mail order. The products included sponges and “vaginal enemas” that promised to force abortions. Her arrest took place while she was selling one of her products to a man who said he wanted to buy it for his wife; it was a police factory.
In his article The 19th Century Women’s Secret Guide to Pregnancy Control (Atlas Obscura, April 22), the American writer Emily Cataneo explains that “brave women entrepreneurs” like Sarah Chase were critical vectors of knowledge about contraception and abortion during this particularly repressive period, knowledge that “was transmitted between women through coded language and networks of whispers.
In addition to “restoring menstruation”, other euphemisms for the actions of certain products included “clearing the uterus” or “releasing blockage”.
Many reproductive health advocates and educators have suffered at the hands of the law, like Chase. Perhaps the most famous abortionist of the 19th century was Madame Restell of New York, who portrayed herself in mainstream newspapers as a “woman doctor” and sold “preventive powders” and “women’s monthly pills” . Restell committed suicide in 1878 after being charged with a crime under the new Comstock Act. Sarah Chase has been arrested numerous times, but only went to jail once, when one of her patients died following an abortion.
Whether it’s whispered words behind closed doors, discreet conversations and home deliveries, recipes for herbal infusions, sponges or fake shopping lists, women have always passed on their knowledge to prevent or terminate a pregnancy: in other words, abortions and pregnancy control existed long before the legalization of abortion in the United States in 1973.
Time and how the debate evolves will tell whether people with wombs will have to return to the secrecy of yesteryear, in countries where the laws need to be revised, such as the United States, or whether they can continue to practice these practices. with institutional support and security, as is currently the case in Spain and increasingly in Latin America.