ONTD Political

Leeches, Lye and Spanish Fly

8:42 pm - 01/23/2013

Why might a woman swallow lye? Gunpowder? Why would a woman hit herself about the abdomen with a meat pulverizer? A brickbat? Throw herself down the stairs?

Why would she syringe herself, internally, with turpentine? Gin? Drink laundry bluing?

Why might she probe herself with a piece of whalebone? A turkey feather? A knitting needle?

Why would she consume medicine made of pulverized Spanish fly? How about powdered ergot, a poisonous fungus? Or strychnine, a poison?

Why would she take a bath in scalding water? Or spend the night in the snow?

Because she wanted to end a pregnancy. Historically, women have chosen all those methods to induce abortion. The first known descriptions appeared around 1500 B.C. in the Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text that mentioned an abortion engineered by a plant-fiber tampon coated with honey and crushed dates.

For most of history, abortion has been a dangerous procedure a woman attempted to perform on herself. In private. Without painkillers.

What is most striking about this history of probes and poisons is that throughout all recorded time, there have been women so desperate to end a pregnancy that they were willing to endure excruciating pain and considerable risk, including infection, sterility, permanent injury, puncture and hemorrhage, to say nothing of shame and ostracism. Where abortion was illegal, they risked prosecution and imprisonment. And death, of course.

The newspapers of the mid-1800s were full of advertisements for potions, pills and powders that claimed to cause miscarriage. “French Periodical Pills: Warranted to Have the Desired Effect in All Cases” was one such knowing ad that appeared in The Boston Daily Times in 1845. Those ads spoke euphemistically of “curing female complaint,” or “renovating” or “unblocking” the womb. They treated a problem that women called “suppression of the courses,” the idea being that monthly “turns” were the norm and that any cessation of normal periods meant they were “suppressed,” or that the womb was “obstructed.”

Many of the cures for these “ailments” were nothing but sugar and dust. But some of them were nonetheless quite effective. Those were the dangerous ones, containing as they commonly did, turpentine, opium, pennyroyal, aloes, snakeroot, myrrh or oil of rue. One of the most common ingredients was ergot, or claviceps purpurea, a fungus found on the stalks of grain. Women as early as the 16th century had observed that cows that consumed ergot miscarried their calves. The fungus, however, had disastrous side effects, called ergotism, also known as St. Anthony’s fire. Symptoms included a burning sensation in the limbs because of blood constriction, which led to gangrene. The poison could also cause seizures, itching, psychosis, vomiting, contractions, diarrhea and death.

Oil of tansy was another common abortifacient. Here is John Irving’s unforgettable description, from his scrupulously researched novel “The Cider House Rules,” of a doctor trying to save a woman after too many tansy-oil miscarriages: “Her abdomen was full of blood...but when he tried to sew up [the] uterus, his stitches simply pulled through the tissue, which he noticed was the texture of a soft cheese...his finger passed as easily through the intestine as through gelatin.” Tansy oil rots internal organs.

Notwithstanding such ghastly scenarios, abortion did not always — or even usually — result in death. Many women survived it, which is why for most of history it was one of the main forms of birth control. If they did choose to enlist help, they most often called upon another woman, usually a skilled midwife. But by the 1850s, male doctors began to take over all aspects of women’s reproductive care, sidelining midwives and leading the movement to outlaw the practice of abortion. Did they save some women’s lives by unmasking the dangers of “medicines” to cause miscarriage? Undoubtedly. But by withholding midwives’ knowledge of how to provide a relatively safe abortion in the early stage of pregnancy, they drove other women to undergo the procedure at the hands of the unskilled, until the United States Supreme Court made abortion legal on Jan. 22, 1973.

Women’s historical willingness to endure horrible dangers, to submit to extreme and prolonged pain, to risk grave injury and death rather than remain pregnant, tells us something important about female desperation and determination, and the price women were — and still are — willing to pay to control their own bodies. What it tells us is that women will always find ways to end an unwanted pregnancy, no matter what the law says, no matter the risks to themselves.

If the Supreme Court were ever to overturn Roe v. Wade, or if anti-abortion forces continue to successfully chisel away at a woman’s access to safe abortion, many women will still choose abortion — by their own hands. Leeches, lye and Spanish fly are still among the many tools available to the self-abortionist. So are knitting needles, with predictable, disastrous consequences. There is no law that will end the practice of abortion, only laws that can protect a woman’s right to choose it, or not, and to keep it the safe and private procedure still available to us in 2013, 40 years after the Supreme Court made it legal.

vulturoso 23rd-Jan-2013 08:28 pm (UTC)
But by the 1850s, male doctors began to take over all aspects of women’s reproductive care, sidelining midwives and leading the movement to outlaw the practice of abortion.

Thanks, guys.
spyral_path 23rd-Jan-2013 08:52 pm (UTC)
Which is why I could never understand how the same people who want to overturn roe v wade being opposed to sex education and readily available birth control.
ginger_maya 23rd-Jan-2013 08:54 pm (UTC)
Because the same people who want to overturn it hate women and making their lives miserable through no access to abortion, education and birth control are good things for them.
carmy_w 23rd-Jan-2013 10:07 pm (UTC)
Yep. Barefoot & pregnant, BB; barefoot & pregnant. No other options needed.
angelus7988 23rd-Jan-2013 09:18 pm (UTC)
Because only ~dirty whores need abortions, and birth control makes all women ~dirty whores. The only necessary form of birth control is an asprin, held between the knees, rabblerabblerabble.
eldvno 23rd-Jan-2013 09:28 pm (UTC)

And oddly enough, these people see all pregnancies as a blessing, yet want to PUNISH these dirty whores who get pregnant with a baby.
nikoel 23rd-Jan-2013 10:00 pm (UTC)
Cognitive dissonance at it's finest.
amyura 23rd-Jan-2013 10:52 pm (UTC)
Yup. Which is why the rape-and-incest exceptions are relatively popular among the "softer" pro-lifers. Because the woman didn't want to have sex.
jasonbeast 23rd-Jan-2013 10:20 pm (UTC)
I actually saw a Facebook comment that was this, almost word-for-word, yesterday.
amyura 23rd-Jan-2013 10:51 pm (UTC)
Because what they're really opposed to is sex. They really do think that sex isn't an enjoyable end in itself, but a means to making babies. People shouldn't be having sex for any other reason.
crooked_halo 24th-Jan-2013 12:55 am (UTC)
This. So much this.
angelofdeath275 23rd-Jan-2013 10:24 pm (UTC)
ugh i feel so damn ill @_@

its a shame that so many women have been driven to such extremes and that society never took a good look in the mirror as to why this shit happens. these cases of illegal abortions or whatever are only seen as extremes, like what dumb whores do when they cant face reality or something
amyura 23rd-Jan-2013 10:55 pm (UTC)
Yet conservatives accuse our side of not knowing history. The only reason that should be necessary for a safe, legal abortion should be because a woman who's pregnant doesn't want to be pregnant. Full stop.
tabaqui 23rd-Jan-2013 11:12 pm (UTC)
Nice to know when men got involved, the first thing they did was fuck shit up.
momentsplinter 23rd-Jan-2013 11:46 pm (UTC)

it's so unsurprising
ginger_maya 23rd-Jan-2013 11:47 pm (UTC)
My basic reaction to that part was "YOU DON'T SAY"
lillyangel 24th-Jan-2013 04:30 am (UTC)
Yep. Not only this they start fucking up with abortion, but the number of maternal and infant deaths also dramatically rose at that time because idiots didn't know that they should have washed their hands before putting them in someone.
perthro 24th-Jan-2013 06:19 am (UTC)
Well, DUH. I mean, laying down during birth was apparently a thing started by King Louis XIV, who enjoyed watching women have babies. This, of course, caused way more strain on the body, now that the woman in question no longer had the ability to work with the gravity and muscular positioning involved with squatting births (the norm the world over at the time), leading in part to the wonderful world of obstetrics, and causing a lot of women undue pain and suffering where they otherwise wouldn't have had much of a problem.

Obvs, women were doing it wrong before a rich, white man corrected us. What would we do without their leadership?!

(in part cited from "The Manner Born: Birth Rites in Cross-Cultural Perspective" by Lauren Dundes, if anyone is interested)
tabaqui 24th-Jan-2013 06:37 am (UTC)
I did not know that. That is grotesque. My only issue with squatting to give birth would have been...by the time she was actually being *born*, my legs were toast. Dunno if i could have kept the position.
perthro 24th-Jan-2013 07:08 am (UTC)
Midwives would have helped hold the woman up, and piles of pillows or another object would have been available to lean back against. The instinct to lean forward during certain bouts of contractions can be beneficial, since it helps push.

A family friend may approach this birthing style soon, since hers is high-risk to herself and the soon-to-be infant.
tabaqui 24th-Jan-2013 11:41 am (UTC)
I had my daughter at home, and for a while was in our big tub. I was kind of upright for every contraction, but then relaxed back down to half-reclining between. My midwife said that that was causing any 'downward' or whatever movement I'd gotten to kind of reverse itself.

Plus, the water was getting cold and so was i, heh. So we moved to the bed, instead. I didn't have any issues there, other than nearly kicking my midwife's assistant in the face when she got too handsy.

Whatever works, that's my motto. Hope your friend has a safe and easy birthing!
lastrega 24th-Jan-2013 09:22 am (UTC)
Yes, lying down to birth is pretty much the least effective, most painful way. But it's convenient for doctors, and that's the most important thing, right?
lady_borg 24th-Jan-2013 01:18 am (UTC)
1850, isn't that when the world's population started to balloon?
hinoema 24th-Jan-2013 04:39 am (UTC)
That is actually a very astute observation. Hmm.
lady_grace 24th-Jan-2013 01:29 am (UTC)
Depressing thing is, I don't think a lot of anti-choice people care about these consequences, because ultimately, women shouldn't be having sex outside of marriage to begin with. So these women giving themselves an abortion just compounds their sin, and if they die, it's because they thwarted God. And well, we all know how anti-choicers feel about pregnancies from the result of rape/incest (God's will!).
nikoel 24th-Jan-2013 03:05 am (UTC)
And married women shouldn't be wanting to not have babies, or even space them out. They should know that their whole reason for existing and being married is to bear children. It's really sick.
amyura 24th-Jan-2013 04:06 am (UTC)
Seriously. Half the people I know who've had abortions have been in heterosexual marriages.
redstar826 24th-Jan-2013 01:59 am (UTC)
my grandmother is getting up there in years and lately has been on a "I'm telling all the family secrets before I go!" kick. We recently found out that our great aunt (who died a few years ago) had life long health problems that the rest of us never knew about that were brought on by a back alley abortion :(
romp 24th-Jan-2013 05:01 am (UTC)
I wish we could remove the stigma and know who had risked her life that way. It would be our aunts and mothers and grandmothers...including those of the people opposed to legal abortion.
perthro 24th-Jan-2013 06:03 am (UTC)
They forgot rosemary and pennyroyal. Specifically, rosemary oil. However, it's caustic- it can cause the skin to blister, and eats through rubber. It can also put a person in a coma. Pennyroyal is pretty dangerous too, but it'll work. I wasn't brave enough to try oil, but strong rosemary tea drunk throughout the day was pretty common with me. Thanks to an untreated progesterone disorder (ie, doctors refuse to treat me because they want me to get pregnant), I can't tell if birth control worked... and then I couldn't be on it at all. But I couldn't afford constant pregnancy tests, either, nor could I trust them. So, constant small doses of various poisons. I'd rather die than have kids.
elialshadowpine 24th-Jan-2013 10:18 am (UTC)
Just a bit of info in case it is useful. If you're in the US, Dollar Tree brand pregnancy tests are a buck and basically the same thing as regular tests, just less packaging. I buy a bunch at a time and keep em in my cabinet because I have a family history of very fertile women when they shouldn't be and women not showing pregnancy symptoms until about 6mo along.

I sympathize. I have PCOS and had a really, really hard time getting docs to prescribe me hormonal birth control at all.
abee 24th-Jan-2013 07:46 pm (UTC)
(ie, doctors refuse to treat me because they want me to get pregnant

perthro 24th-Jan-2013 11:40 pm (UTC)
Doctor after doctor, it's always the same:

"Well, you'll change your mind! You'll love having kids when you're older!" (my first clue that something was horribly wrong... was I 14? 15?)

"You'll adjust when you're older. Just because you don't make estrogen now doesn't mean you won't later. Sometimes if you have children early, it just corrects itself! And if not, at least you had kids now, since you might not be able to later..." (17-ish, I think?)

"Your husband should decide whether or not you have kids!" (Planned Parenthood, I think I was 18 or 19 and getting worse than ever)

"You're still too young to be sure about kids yet!" (22? 23? I stopped seeing OB/GYNs after that. I'm done.)

"Really? You should see a fertility specialist! They'll treat you." (After being hospitalized for cardiac arrest last year... because I have WAY TOO MUCH progesterone, and that's a side effect of it being untreated. If I die again, fuck it.)

I'm seriously debating if I ever want to see another doctor again. My hair is falling out, my teeth are breaking, I've broken three small bones in two years, two cardiac arrests, a minor stroke from the blood clots, nerve pain, high blood sugar, it goes on and on... all because they refuse to fix this with surgery. Because they want me to have kids first. They give exactly 0 fucks that I've technically died already because of it.
abee 25th-Jan-2013 01:37 am (UTC)
I...I can't even fathom the vastness of this stupidity from those doctors. I'm fucking tearing right here and I sincerely want to hug you so badly because this canc't even be allowed to exist, this... stupid shit. This can't be happening to ANYONE and yet, this happens and...

Oh, God, I'm sending all E-Hugs to you and hope you will find a trustworthy doctor in time.
vvalkyri 26th-Jan-2013 06:01 pm (UTC)
Good lord.

What part of the country are you in? I'm wondering whether a fresh start with an endocrinologist could help. I'm not surprised by a reluctance toward surgery, but they should have been making some attempt to treat!

It looks like there are progesterone production blocking drugs out there; this article mentions one by name as part of a discussion of pregnancy termination, but presumably a different dose of that class of drugs might regulate. No idea if these drugs were around last time you dealt with the docs or not.

Another possibility is that an endocrinologist might have available drugs that affect the conversion of progesterone into the other stuff (it's a precursor to cortisol, ferex - at least some of the effects you're describing are similar to those people with cortisol problems have.) http://anabolicminds.com/forum/attachment.php?attachmentid=21490&stc=1&d=1212103660

Regardless, GAH - someone should be making some attempt to treat! (And my abject apologies if there's already been a bunch of tries at nonsurgical solutions and all the above is old hat. )

(In defense of whomever said something about a fertility specialist, those /are/ the folks who deal most with hormonal imbalances.)
perthro 8th-Feb-2013 04:11 am (UTC)
Sorry for the lateness! Still catching up... from two weeks ago... x.x

Did you see the ep of John Stewart at the RNC? The one where his reporter (forgot her name) was carried off by the giant palmetto bug? Literally a minute or two driving distance from there. Tampa is *rough* beneath the surface.

We tried estrogen combo pills. We tried high-dose estrogen, including the BC patch. It ended up giving me blood clots, and I started losing my vision. That ended that! I tried changing my diet; nope, no dice. I tried "aging out" during the first few years that things are naturally supposed to balance out... and only got worse. There's little but surgery left. I was hospitalized last year because the cramping was so bad my husband (and the docs) thought I had appendicitis. They in turn caused all of my muscles to start locking up from the pain... causing my BP to plummet... causing my heart to stop. Yayyy. That was the doc that really was trying to help... it's just that he genuinely didn't understand that I really didn't WANT kids, and didn't need a fertility specialist, and the sentiment had nothing to do with the pain I was in. I'm willing to try one if they'll deal with the hormonal imbalances, but meeting with so many informally in forums... geezus, they seem baby-crazed. Projecting their own desires for kids and their love of helping women have kids onto women who really HATE children, or who don't want any because it isn't right for them. So I'm a little leery of having to pay out of pocket for ANOTHER doc who will just tell me to have kids. x.x So I'm just waiting to run out of time, or to get so bad that a hospital will do the surgery.

I'm going to bring up the progesterone-blocking drugs with the docs. I've been to so, so many, and none of them have mentioned any. ^_^ Thank you!
lastrega 24th-Jan-2013 09:27 am (UTC)
The herbal literature as far back as there is literature is full of abortifacients. It was standard midwife/wise woman knowledge. It's a very recent thing for anyone to consider a pregnancy a "life" until after about 20-25 weeks when movement can be felt.
martyfan 24th-Jan-2013 11:32 am (UTC)
Seriously. There was a plant that I believe the Romans made extinct because it was such a good abortifacient. (Autocorrect doesn't recognize that as a word, it suggested anti-abortion instead. LOL no.)
justspaz 24th-Jan-2013 04:19 pm (UTC)
I just read a typically horrid op-ed in my school's student-run newspaper by some guy (of course, right) about the 50 million babies slaughtered since Roe v Wade, since somehow making safe, legal abortions available is equated by anti-choicers as the very beginning of abortion. I want to just link to this article in the comments section, but the maxim of comment sections stands extremely well for my school's site, and I don't want to wade in that shit.
lizzy_someone 25th-Jan-2013 01:04 am (UTC)
What is most striking about this history of probes and poisons is that throughout all recorded time, there have been women so desperate to end a pregnancy that they were willing to endure excruciating pain and considerable risk, including infection, sterility, permanent injury, puncture and hemorrhage, to say nothing of shame and ostracism. Where abortion was illegal, they risked prosecution and imprisonment. And death, of course.

EXACTLY. I always wonder how people can actually believe that making abortion illegal will stop abortion. What could the government do to me that would be worse than enduring pregnancy and childbirth against my will?
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