The peacock flower (or flos pavonis) is an arresting plant, standing nine feet tall in full bloom, with brilliant red and yellow blossoms. But it’s more than beautiful; it’s an abortifacient, too. 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 wrote this account after traveling to Surinam, then a Dutch colony, for the purpose of recording the country’s plants and insects. She had hoped to make a major discovery by uncovering a plant like quinine, which had made both planters and botanist rich. In the early eighteenth century, applied botany was big business. Advances in the field had opened a new world of medicines. But Merian made no such discoveries, recording instead the little-valued knowledge of slave women whose use of the peacock flower was deeply political.
She wasn’t the first to describe these qualities. Two other naturalists had also discovered the peacock flower’s use as an abortifacient in the West Indies. Michel Descourtilz, a Frenchman, had observed its same use in Haiti, writing with disdain of the “ill intentions of the ‘negress’ who aborted their offspring.” Another remarked on the “guilty practice of preventing pregnancy by use of herbs” and was surprised that slave women used them effectively, that the “drinks did not destroy health.”
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.
But the most fascinating thing about Merian’s revelation about the peacock flower was its total lack of dissemination within European medical communities. Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam was widely used by both botanists and men of medicine—so much so that intact copies today fetch incredibly high prices. And the peacock flower itself came to Europe: merchants valued the plant’s looks and shipped large numbers of its poisonous seeds to their home countries, where the flower decorated nearly every royal garden.
Outside of Merian’s book, however, there was virtually no mention of the abortive qualities of the peacock flowers.
While the scientific revolution and colonialism aided the discovery numerous medicinal herbs, Europe collectively engaged in a kind of culturally induced amnesia of abortifacients. Londa Schiebinger, a feminist historian of science, notes: “The same forces feeding the explosion of knowledge we associate with the Scientific Revolution and global expansion led to an implosion of knowledge of herbal abortifacients. European awareness of antifertility agents declined over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”
The story of the peacock flower is a microcosm of a larger history of abortifacients: knowledge passed from woman to woman, often outside the boundaries of traditional medical discourses and, therefore, forever confined to a moral realm of danger and superstition. But despite hundreds of years of legal and religious repression, the abortifacient endured, proving that the desire for reproductive freedom is not nearly as modern as some argue.
The history of abortifacients is a narrative that parallels and informs our own contemporary debates over them, particularly in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision. It’s a history that has always been mired in the murky waters of what exactly an abortifacient is; what constitutes life, and when does it begin? But it’s also a story of the incredible flexibility of legal systems that found ever-new and astonishing ways to suppress reproductive freedom.
Abortifacients are nearly as old as the written word itself, as early as 1085, when Constantine the African included iris, rue, willow and stinking ferula as effective herbs for inducing menses. Even before that, Muhuammed ibn Zakariya Al-Razi described a cinnamon, rue, and wallflower broth for similar purposes in a text dating between 865-925.
Abortifacients were mixed and were, it seems, readily available through midwives or “wise women” throughout the Roman era. There were few laws governing their use, in large part because of the broader sense at the time of when a pregnancy actually began. The determination of pregnancy was left to the woman, who would not have been considered pregnant until she actually declared herself so. Such determination almost always came after the quickening (when a woman actually feels fetal movement), which can occur anywhere between 14 and 20 weeks into a pregnancy.
It’s worth remembering then that until the nineteenth century, the use of abortifacients prior to the quickening would not have been considered abortion (at least in the same way we define abortion). Throughout the first trimester, women were generally free to take herbs intended to end a pregnancy. The few laws that existed applied only to visible or announced pregnancies, and even then were regulated much like theft: the right of the father was protected and the fetus itself was not a person under the law. The law seemed content with the ambiguity of “life” and when it began within the womb.
Most early medieval laws adopted the Roman position on pregnancy and early abortion. According to the Catholic Church, life began at “ensoulment,” which just so happened to coincide with quickening. But the Church still took a dim view of herbal abortifacients and contraception. During confession, priests began asking women: “Have you drunk any maleficium, that is herbs or other agents, so that you could not have children?” But in answering “yes,” women did not yet risk their mortal soul, nor their freedom. They could simply make amends by following the priest’s guidance.
There was a sense though, even in the Middle Ages, that pregnancy should be more strictly regulated. And the Church’s position began to change when Thomas Aquinas wrote what would become the church’s official stance: sex was solely for procreation. Aquinas argued that interference with natural laws of reproduction were immoral because it violated the “right reason” of Biblical law. Abortifacients, before and after the fetus had “formed,” were considered a violation of natural reproduction gifted by God. Still, it’s important to note that, even within this position, Aquinas doesn’t offer a new definition about life: his philosophies were still rooted in the ancient understanding that pregnancy begins only after the quickening.
But Aquinas’s writing hints at the Church’s deep discomfort with abortifacients, as well as a restlessness over “ensoulment” or conception beginning so late into a pregnancy. The law, however, was not on their side: attempts to regulate “midwives’ drink” had only produced statutes with no teeth. European history is littered with cases of women charged with abortion only to be found not guilty because of their insistence that the quickening had not yet happened.
And so, herbal abortion drugs continued to be recorded in “books of secrets,” pseudo-scientific books that were just as much about decoding those puzzling creatures—”women”—as they were about science. These were readily available, and most importantly for women at the time, midwives were trained with knowledge about the usage and dosage of herbal abortifacients.
When the Catholic Church realized that they could neither regulate abortifacients, nor convict the women who might have used them, they began persecuting the source of the knowledge. Midwives were targeted heavily during the hundreds of years that Europe burned witches at the stake. After all, the Bible clearly instructed the death of witches in Exodus 22:18: “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.”
“In the suppression of witchcraft,” writes historian John Riddle, “three separate and distinct things—witchcraft, midwifery, and birth control—were joined in an unfortunate, unholy marriage.” Not all witches were midwives, nor were all midwives witches, but intersection between witchcraft and midwifery was forged in common law. “Sevenfold Witchcraft” included everything from adultery to bestiality and “offering children to devils.” But it also focused on the midwife’s knowledge of reproduction, contraception, and herbal abortifacients. Witchcraft included: “obstructing the generative act” by making men impotent, “destroying the generative force in women,” and “procuring abortion.
It’s difficult to surmise why exactly midwives were singled out during the centuries that witch burning endured—the need for population growth, psychotic stress, the control of women’s bodies, the enforcement of religious law may all have something to do with it—but there was a clear path forged between women’s sexuality and midwives and thus with sorcery. To be clear, the vast majority of women prosecuted for witchcraft were tried for sexual deviancy (adultery, homosexuality, etc.), but a significant number were practicing midwives. One of the more famous trials was of Anne Hutchinson, a practicing midwife. And of the almost 200 women accused in Salem, twenty percent were identified as midwives.
Witch trials also coincided with the professionalization of the physician, who, armed with formal university education, regarded the midwife as the product of country superstition and irrationality. The midwife’s knowledge of anti-fertility herbs was largely excluded from medical instruction. As the medical profession solidified itself, women were shut further out. The position of medical men was reinforced by the Church who, in a papal decree, stated “If a woman dare to cure without having studied she is a witch and must die.”
So midwives stopped learning and stopped prescribing. Witch burning was an effective tool of breaking a chain of knowledge about abortifacients that had been in circulation for a thousand years.
The chain of knowledge was broken, but the demand for abortifacients never diminished. And to avoid persecution under the law, those that trafficked in herbal supplements used language meant to cloak the actual purposes of their drugs. Perhaps this is why Merian was surprised by the plain words of Surinam’s slave women. By the time Merian entered the field of applied botany, abortifacients were concealed beneath layers of secrecy; if Merian knew anything about herbal abortifacients, it was likely through Latin texts. “Menstrual stimulators” appeared in a handful of seventeenth and eighteenth-century gynecology texts; apothecaries hocked drinks that promised “natural purgations” and herbs mean to “bringeth down the menses.”
In a rare kind of text from 1671, a Mrs. Jane Sharp published a guide for midwives meant to avoid the “many miseries women endure in the hands of unskilled midwives.” Sharp included in her guide plants would cause a miscarriage like “alpine snakeroot.” By the fourth edition, “miscarriage” herbs were omitted, but menstrual stimulators (“artemisia, tansy, pennyroyal and catnip, taken with cinnamon water”) remained in the book. But Sharp included a necessary warning: “do none of these things to women with child for that will be murder.” Some historians have suggested that language like this parallels our own drug labelling, particularly the familiar disclaimer: “Do not take if pregnant or nursing.”
By the eighteenth century, too, the taking and selling of abortifacients slowly became illegal. But it was hard to identify substances because of the cloak-and-dagger manner in which they were labelled. And it continued this way well into the nineteenth century. Victorian women in search a remedy to her “female problems” could open the newspaper and choose from any number of pills and powders to cure their ills. Many came with a winking disclaimer that they should not be used during pregnancy.
Many of the pills and powders offered were far from safe. Abortifacients were not tested or regulated, and were about as safe as a back-alley surgical abortion. Some of the pills and powders were placebos, some purgatives or laxatives, and others straight up poisons.
The British Medical Journal noted that between 1893 and 1905, “hundreds of cases of lead poisoning from [ingesting] diachylon [a lead oleate] were occurring every year, so much so that in out-patient rooms of Nottingham and Sheffield hospitals it became routine practice to examine the gums of women patients.” The Journal and the British Medical Association’s response was not to regulate abortifacients nor to make them safer and more accessible. Instead they joined with the London Council of Public Morality and drew up a bill that made “the advertisement and sale or drugs or articles designed for promoting miscarriage or procuring abortion to be made illegal, and that to advertise drugs or articles designed from the prevention of conception should also be illegal.”
Their bill—which threw in contraception for fun—successfully passed in 1906. The British Medical Association celebrated the “most effective available restriction on the sale…of abortifacients.” The laws only pushed the abortifacient trade farther underground, making the drugs more and more dangerous.
But if England’s law had been so successful, it’s because they had a blueprint from which to trace. In the United States an 1873 federal law, known as the Comstock Law, had legislated the mailing of anything that fell under an incredibly broad-sweeping definition of obscenity. It included “obscene” printed materials, contraceptives and abortifacients, and “obscene” private correspondence. The Comstock Law played a significant role in late-nineteenth century efforts to keep sex tied to reproduction. And the law, named for its champion and enforcer Anthony Comstock, directly targeted those who sold abortifacients. Language that was considered obscene was almost entirely left up to Comstock and, with great zeal, he hunted down anyone who offered “female regulators.” Comstock caught the infamous abortionist Madame Restall, caught Chicago physician Ida Lincoln who offered to provide an abortifacient by mail in response to an 1898 decoy letter, and almost single-handedly shut down the remaining sale of anything resembling a safe abortifacient. The irony of Comstock’s persecutory fanaticism was that, all the while, the use of abortifacients prior to the quickening was still largely legal.
While Comstock hunted down abortion providers, states began redefining the moment of conception. In Maine, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court said that the ancient understanding of life at quickening “had been abandoned by all jurists in all countries where an enlightened jurisprudence exists in practice.” And the rest of the states fell like dominoes, all agreeing that life began at conception and abortion or abortion-inducing drugs were all illegal.
If that wasn’t enough, between 1919 and 1934 the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued legal restraints against fifty-seven “feminine hygiene products” including “Blair’s Female Tablets” and “Madame LeRoy’s Regulative Pills.”
By the twentieth century, women had almost completely lost a kind of reproductive freedom that they had enjoyed since at least the dawn of the Roman Empire.
If there is a sense today that abortifacients are dangerous, it is likely because the knowledge of them and the research about them have been suppressed for so long. To make them broadly accessible—to enable the post-clinic abortion—would require a radical act: an acknowledgment that women are trustworthy enough and rational enough to make decisions about their own reproduction.
It would seem, instead, that the ugly cycle of this particular history is repetitive: women want accessible abortions, laws are enacted to “protect” women, women risk their health to secure their freedom. In this cycle, women are framed as acting irrational by risking their lives; the law is always rational, it always prevails. The law is so rational that in 1993 when numerous Brazilian women were hospitalized for incomplete abortions after taking an ulcer drug, the law’s response was to make it even harder for pregnant women to obtain any drug. The law was working to protect life. And indeed, the law is so rational that nations have quite literally mobilized warships to prevent abortifacients from entering the country. Misoprostol is dangerous enough to warrant the powerful guns of a modern military.
But perhaps more importantly is the constant attempt to rewrite definitions of “life,” “conception,” and “abortifacient.” For Hobby Lobby and like-minded individuals to consider Plan B, Ella, or IUDs an abortifacient requires both the belief that pregnancy begins at the microscopic level of fertilization and radical revision of the definition of an abortifacient. It also requires a complete erasure of a particular history, namely a history of women. To deny the reality that women have always sought their right to reproductive freedom—long before feminism “infected” post-modern ideology—is not only to be on the wrong side of history, it’s to ignore that history exists.
Stassa Edwards is a freelance writer and editor.
Top image by Jim Cooke, original illustration by Maria Sibylla Merian in the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam; second image from The Library Company.
Karen Abbott, “Madame Restell: The Abortionist of Fifth Avenue,” Smithsonian. Available online.
John M. Riddle, Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Harvard University Press, 1997
Londa Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Harvard University Press, 1989.
Londa Schiebinger, “Lost Knowledge, Bodies of Ignorance, and the Poverty of Taxonomy as Illustrated by the Curious Fate of Flos Pavonis, an Abortifacient,” in Picturing Science, Producing Art. Routledge, 1998. Read more of Schiebinger’s work online.