Herbal Contraceptives and Abortifacients (birth control)

A variety of herbs were believed by peoples in the ancient past to have value either as contraceptives or abortifacients. Some herbs were more effective than others, although effectiveness might well have depended on the dosages. Many of the herbs continued to be used in medieval and modern times and, although they were not always mentioned in the medical literature, there are hints of their usage elsewhere. This implies that in many ways herbs were known to women and midwives and their uses were often not publicized. This also meant that information about them could be lost—at least temporarily, because it was not usually committed to writing—and periodically rediscovered. Many of the herbs have been tested in the twentieth century and found to be effective, although some might be toxic if taken in very large amounts. John Riddle has explored them in some detail and much of the information in this entry is based on his research.

One ancient contraceptive might have been so effective that it became extinct. This is believed to have happened to silphium (a species of giant fennel, Ferula), which was widely used as an oral contraceptive in the Greek world and in the ancient Near East. Overharvesting caused its price to rise and by the first century of the modern era it was described as worth more than its weight in silver. Part of the difficulty was that it grew only in a thirty-mile band along the dry mountainside facing the Mediterranean sea and attempts to expand its rate of cultivation failed.

By late antiquity it had become extinct. Although it is impossible to measure its effectiveness today, silphium had a widespread reputation as both a contraceptive and an abortifacient. The standard prescription was for a woman to drink the juice from a small amount of silphium, about the size of a chickpea, with water once a month. It was also used as a menstrual regulator, a euphemism in many an ancient herbal book for abortifacient. Other forms of Ferula that are not extinct were also used and have been tested in modern laboratories, but they were not as prized by ancient peoples. One such form is astafeda (Ferula assa-foetida), which was a common substitute for sil-phium in the ancient world. Its root sap is what gives the modern Worcestershire sauce its distinctive aroma. Crude alcohol extracts of astafe-da and a related plant, Ferula orientalis, have been found to inhibit plantation of fertilized ova in rats, and these plants among other varieties seem to have been effective means of birth control in humans.

Sometimes, herbs widely used in some periods are not used in others, perhaps indicative of the nature of oral transmission. The seeds of the pomegranate, for example, were widely used to prevent conception in the ancient world and they are still used in India, East Africa, and the Pacific. Modern animal studies have demonstrated that the seeds do have contraceptive value. Female rats fed pomegranate seed and paired with male rats not fed it had a 72 percent reduction in fertility. Guinea pigs subject to the same diet had a 100 percent reduction. But if it was so effective, why was it not used in medieval or modern Europe or the United States? Perhaps simply because it was not grown in the more temperate climates and there was no widespread trade in it because its use was not known in Europe and the United States.

Listed alphabetically are a number of other herbs:

Aloe (Aloe vera) has both contraceptive and abortive effects, and although not so much used in ancient times, it was in later times. In an alcohol extract it apparently prevents implantation of the fertilized egg into the uterus, although its effectiveness depends in part on the dosage.

Artemisia is a plant that grows in widely different parts of the world. In the classical world it was regarded as the plant of Artemis, the goddess of the forest, hills, childbirth, and fertility. Artemisia is also an effective antifertility agent. In a 1979 test on rats, 10 mg of scoparone, a derivative of Artemisia scoparia, were fed to rats on days one through seven after coitus; the result was a 100 percent termination of pregnancy.

Asarum (Asarum europaeum) is closely related to birthwort and has similar medicinal qualities. The North American counterpart (Asarum canadense) appears in folk medicine as a contraceptive made from boiling its roots. It is mentioned in Greek writings and medieval writings as well, and is regarded as a way of inducing menstruation.

Birthwort (Aristolochia), a plant used in ancient Egypt to ease a difficult childbirth, also has contraceptive and abortive action. Aris-tolochia acid, derived from the plant, has been found to be 100 percent effective in blocking pregnancy in mice after a single oral dose on the sixth or seventh day after coitus, with few side effects. Stronger doses interrupted midterm pregnancies. Birthwort was also used to expel dead fetuses.

Celery (Apiceae family) was used as an oral contraceptive in ancient Egypt, and celery seed is found in many traditional medical systems in medieval Europe, India, and Africa. Celery seed apparently is not an effective contraceptive unless taken in very high doses.

Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) was said by the Greeks to prevent an erection, suppress sexual desire, and serve as an abortifacient. Some Greek athletic trainers required their men to sleep on a botanical bed of chaste tree twigs supposedly to prevent an erection. Seeds of the chaste tree can cause an abortion if taken early in the pregnancy but are less effective later.

Dittany (Dictamnus albus), a herb of the mint family, was believed by the Greeks and Romans to induce menstruation and to expel a dead (or live?) fetus. It has both contraceptive and abortive effects. About 3 g of dittany seeds was given to terminate a pregnancy in the third month, less in earlier months.

Ferns are often mentioned as contraceptives and abortifacients in the pharmacological literature of the ancient world, although which ones are difficult to determine. The fern that Linnaeus called Capillus veneris, the hair of love, has been found to be an active inhibitor of egg implantation when taken after coitus. Ferns were also used in ancient China as a contraceptive and abortifacient, as they were in Hungary, New Guinea, and in medieval Europe.

Juniper (Juniperus communis or Juniperus sabina) appears frequently in ancient and medieval sources as both a contraceptive and an abortifacient. It was rubbed on the penis before insertion, inserted into the woman’s vagina, or taken orally. It may also have some toxic side effects, but it remains one of the best documented of herbal remedies for unwanted pregnancies. The cypress (Cyperus incompleteus) is closely related to juniper and was regarded as a menstrual regulator as well as an abortifacient.The cypress has estrogenic qualities and was not only used in classical and medieval Europe but in Peru and Paraguay.

Mint (Mentha) has a number of varieties with antifertility qualities. Pennyroyal (discussed below), sage, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, and hyssop inhibit gonadotrophic or prolactin secretion and were used as early abortifacients or contraceptives. Usually they were boiled down with other spices such as juniper or cypress chips, mixed with a sweet wine, and drunk.

Myrrh (Commiphora) was recognized as an antifertility drug in the ancient world as well as an abortifacient. As of this writing, it still has to be tested in animals.

Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), a member of the mint family, when taken as a tea acted as an abortifacient. A number of modern animal and human studies have found that pennyroyal contains pule-gone, which terminates pregnancies when taken in controlled amounts.This is because if it is taken in too large amount it is toxic to the liver. Because many of the ancient prescriptions are not very precise, pennyroyal might occasionally not only have aborted an unwanted fetus but also killed the mother. There must have been a lot of traditional information about the correct amount.

Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), sometimes called wild carrot, has a wide geographic range. The seeds, harvested in the fall, are a strong contraceptive if taken orally immediately after coitus. Extract of its seeds have been tested on rats, mice, guinea pigs, and rabbits. The action is such that the implantation process is disrupted and a fertilized ovum either will not be implanted or, if it has been implanted for only a short period, will be released.

Rue (Ruta graveolens) is another plant with a wide range. It has a very unpleasant odor and a disagreeable taste but it can cause an abortion. Extract of rue administered to female rats reduced the number of pregnancies from 20 to 75 percent depending on the potency of the extract administered. The active ingredient is chalepensin, toxic in high doses. Other members of the rue and related families, including Murraya paniculata var. M. sapientum, are equally if not more effective.

Squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) was recommended in a Hippocratic treatise on women’s problem as an effective abortifacient. Knowledge of it, however, was not carried over into medieval Europe, perhaps because it is not native to western Europe. Modern tests indicate that extracts of the plant prevent ovulation.

Willow (Salicaceae family) bark and leaves, often mixed with honey to lessen the bitterness, were taken in various kinds of concoctions to prevent pregnancy or cause an abortion The tree contains a substance (tri-hydroxyestrin) that is similar to a female hormone that interferes with ovulation and implantation.Willows belong to the same family as the poplar (Populus alba) and some older sources mention it as having contraceptive qualities also.

Homosexuality, as this painting of Zeus abducting Ganymede depicts, was common in ancient Greece and served as a form of population control.

Homosexuality, as this painting of Zeus abducting Ganymede depicts, was common in ancient Greece and served as a form of population control.

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