Summer 2011

Selective Memory: An Interview with Londa Schiebinger

The forgotten knowledge of herbal abortifacients

Alistair Sponsel and Londa Schiebinger

Uncovering the history of abortion practices in the early modern period requires overcoming several layers of forgetting. Those who sought to terminate pregnancies tended to do so in secret, and the main practitioners of abortion in Europe during this time were midwives, whose relatively low social status and face-to-face training meant that they left very few written records of their activities. In the colonial setting of the Caribbean, abortion became an act of silent protest by enslaved African women who refused to see their children born into slavery. Meanwhile, many of the literate men who documented healthcare techniques and technologies in the Old and New Worlds were determined that the methods for controlling fertility remain obscure.

Londa Schiebinger, a professor of history at Stanford University, has written extensively on the forgotten histories of women’s participation in science. She examined the cultures of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century abortion in her 2004 book Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. In May 2011, Alistair Sponsel spoke to Schiebinger about the reasons why the methods, if not the motives, for early modern abortion seem so foreign to us, the role of historians in preserving our collective memories, and the moment when a historian must embrace the act of forgetting.

Alistair Sponsel: Much of your work has dealt with bodies of knowledge and cultural practices that were either forgotten or intentionally made opaque. A striking example from Plants and Empire is the knowledge and use of herbal abortifacients in the early modern period, both in Europe and the New World.

Londa Schiebinger: Yes, in the eighteenth century. The really interesting thing is not only that we’ve forgotten about these plant preparations that were used specifically to induce abortion, but that we’ve forgotten the word abortifacient. There’s not even a standard pronunciation; it can be aborti-FAY-shent or aborti-FAH-ki-ent. If we used the word regularly, we would have an agreed-upon pronunciation. My first surprise was that when I say that I work on eighteenth-century abortifacients, everyone says, “What? Did I hear right?” We not only lost the knowledge, we lost the word.

And the definition of abortion itself has changed.

That’s right. In the eighteenth century, people didn’t distinguish between miscarriage and abortion in the way we do today. There were no certain “signs of pregnancy” until the fetus had quickened, and even this was only immediately known to the woman herself. Herbs listed in the material medica as abortificients might also be listed as menstrual regulators used to induce menses. The same plant might be used as a menstrual regulator or as an abortifacient—just in a different dosage.

In the eighteenth century, there were many ways to induce abortion. European women’s abortifacient of choice was savin, a type of juniper tree. An essential oil was extracted from its leaves and used as a medicine. It was said that you knew the midwife in town because she had a savin tree in her backyard. When European governments started cracking down on abortion, the savin trees were cut down or fenced off to prevent access. There was a concern in the eighteenth century, which was ill-founded, that countries were losing population—and a large population was considered the strength of a nation. The crackdown on abortion was part of broader efforts to grow economic and military might. The Prussian government, one of the first to effect laws, in 1794, against abortion, felled the savin trees in the Tiergarten in Berlin.

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