Abortion as Healthcare Throughout History
A reading list of pieces I've written about the history of reproductive autonomy.
I was poking around for historical abortion practitioners to profile this month, but it all felt so familiar because I have already written so many! And though I do have a more modern physician in mind to write about soon, for now, I thought I’d do a little compilation post of all of the pieces I’ve published related to reproductive autonomy. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating:
People have always—ALWAYS—sought to control their own reproductive lives.
Use of contraceptives, abortifacients, and surgical abortions is as old as time itself.
Making abortion illegal only results in more dead or disabled pregnant people.
First up is Hildegard von Bingen (b. 1098): a German nun, was a woman of many talents: abbess, composer, mystic, writer, philosopher, and, perhaps most surprisingly, medical provider. And although it may sound implausible to the modern ear, Hildegard the Catholic nun—who is now sainted—also prescribed medicinal abortions. It was common for nuns and monks to deliver healthcare during this era. In cases of pregnancy complications, the health of the mother was always prioritized over that of the fetus. Dark Ages, my ass! Read my piece for JSTOR Daily: Abortion Remedies from a Medieval Catholic Nun(!)
Next up is Hannah Woolley, 17th century author of the first books on household management and cookery published in English. She didn’t just provide recipes for eel pie and hot chocolate wine, and tips on seasonally decorating your mantel with mosses and mushrooms, she also offered up recipes for cosmetics, shampoos and medicines—even a guide to performing minor surgery. Read my piece for Smithsonian Magazine: Part of Being a Domestic Goddess in 17th-Century Europe Was Making Medicines. Not explicitly mentioned in this piece is that Woolley’s household recipe book, like most others at the time, provides recipes related to reproductive control. Remedies to “bring down the flowers” were meant to bring on menstruation when it was late. Contraceptive and abortifacient remedies were common in these early modern household recipe collections, which would be passed down among the women of the family for generations. It’s a great example of women’s historical involvement in healthcare that scholars long overlooked because it occurred within the domestic, rather than the professional, realm.
Finally, this piece is not so much a biography of a medical woman as it is a deep dive into the history of our knowledge of ectopic pregnancy:
“In 1683, the first case of an ovarian pregnancy was described in the French Journal de Medicine. Just before her death, the woman “complained of a great colick in the region of the right groin,” her physician reported. “This colick was so violent that as I was going to touch the place, she prayed me not to press it.” Upon examining her body post-mortem, the doctor found the woman’s ovary had been “torn longways and through the middle.” Inside, he found a fetus about the size of a thumb.” Read my piece for Dame Magazine: Ectopic Pregnancies Are Not Viable Pregnancies. Period.
As for the women I’ve already covered in this newsletter:
Ancient gynecologist Metrodora prescribed contraceptives and performed D&C-like procedures: “Metrodora lists ways to encourage conception, as well as recipes for contraceptives. For example, a pessary (tampon-like blockade) made of potato porridge and goose fat inserted into the vagina could be used as a contraceptive, or to treat a vaginal infection. She describes remedies to ease childbirth, to increase breastmilk supply, and to dry up your breastmilk. What’s more, she even provides a how-to guide for breastfeeding.”
Sarah Jinner was an astrologer of sexual wellness in the 17th century, offering advice on tracking your period and how to have better sex: “Recipes for contraceptives and abortifacients were particularly sought after. During this era when Hippocrates’s humoral theory still dominated medicine, a woman’s period was seen as a necessary monthly balancing of the humors. There wasn’t a great deal of stigma attached to taking an herbal remedy aimed at “returning the menses” if your period had stopped. Sarah is credited with the important work of making a point to preserve classical knowledge of abortifacients in her texts.”
To dive deeper into the history of abortion and the fight for reproductive autonomy, check out Nursing Clio’s Reproduction History Syllabus.
If you’re more of a visual learner, pop over to Vienna’s Museum of Contraception and Abortion.
More About Me:
Olivia Campbell is the author of the New York Times Bestseller Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine. Her essays and journalism have appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Magazine/The Cut, Smithsonian Magazine, Scientific American, HISTORY, Catapult, and Literary Hub, among others. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband, three sons, and two cats.
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