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Alito's Roe attack betrays a medieval ignorance of ancient history

Historian John M. Riddle believes some women actually may have had more access to reproductive care in the actual Dark Ages than they have in parts of the U.S. today.
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jul. 23, 2019.Carolyn Kaster / AP file

The leak of a draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito indicates that the U.S. Supreme Court is planning to overturn its 1973 decision Roe v. Wade. Many Americans are now worried that the 98-page document signals that millions of women are about to be sent back to a much darker time — denied access to legal abortions and compelled to risk their health, even their lives, in efforts to terminate pregnancies on their own, or carry them to term despite potentially dangerous consequences.

Alito claims historical precedent for his anti-Roe position, but in fact, abortion has been a widely accepted practice from antiquity.

Alito claims historical precedent for his anti-Roe position, but in fact, abortion has been a widely accepted practice from antiquity to the modern era. Historian John M. Riddle believes many women actually may have had more access to reproductive care in the actual Dark Ages (the early medieval period, roughly the 5th century to 10th century) than they have in many parts of the United States today. 

Indeed, throughout history, ordinary people had the good sense to see that deciding when or whether to have children is basic to a productive and healthy life — not just for women, but for their families and entire communities. Yet modern conservative politicians are proving that human progress is not linear: Rights and knowledge achieved in one era may be lost or suppressed in the next.

Though we may, for example, view ancient and medieval communities as repressive toward women and ignorant about managing reproduction, Riddle lays out in “Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West” that they were not only tolerant of abortion, but well versed in how to induce it through botanical drugs taken orally. Riddle, an expert in the history of medicine, cites historical evidence and modern pharmacological studies to suggest that these treatments, based on vast stores of botanical knowledge (much of it now lost) could be quite effective. 

And although conservative Christians today often assume their community has always maintained a moral, religious and legal opposition to abortion, the truth is more complicated, notes Roland Betancourt in Scientific American. During the medieval period, Betancourt explains, “good Christian women were indeed undertaking abortions and using contraceptives.”

While it is true that many Christian theologians became increasingly hostile to fertility management during the Middle Ages, Riddle observes that regular folks were quite used to abortion and often expected women to seek them without shame or fear of repercussions. He notes that even when bishops pressed for criminalizing abortion, juries routinely refused to convict women.  

This isn’t that surprising, because people have always sought the ability to plan families: Ancient Egyptians practiced drug-induced abortions, as did the Greeks. The ancient Greek city-state of Cyrene (now Libya) featured an entire economy based on an abortifacient plant, silphium (related to giant fennel). The plant was so popular with Greeks and Romans, Riddle explains, that it was overharvested to extinction.

Although conservative Christians today often assume their community has always maintained a moral, religious and legal opposition to abortion, the truth is more complicated.

In the Middle Ages, Riddle’s book details, villages would have had a midwife or “wise woman,” who prescribed contraceptives and abortifacients made from plants like pennyroyal and yarrow. Later, male apothecaries started competing with them. Even some prominent religious figures offered guidance to help women manage reproduction through drugs, including the 12th-century Catholic nun Hildegard von Bingen, who wrote medical texts describing how to prepare abortifacients. The 13th century physician Peter of Spain, who went on to become Pope John XXI, wrote a text for the poor describing drugs used for birth control and provoking menstruation — a common way to describe ending a pregnancy.

Alito, in the leaked draft opinion, cites 17th century English common law as a precedent for his extreme view and asserts that abortions have always been un-American: “The inescapable conclusion is that a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions,” he argues, claiming “an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment [that] persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.”

Such assertions, however, appear disingenuous. Riddle told NBC News THINK that Alito ignores societal practices on a large scale. According to him, American women employed many abortifacients and could readily access “little boxes of ‘restoration pills,’ usually for as low as three pennies,” adding that “many, if not most, women knew what to take for an unwanted pregnancy.”

While it is true that certain factors — often misogynistic, such as witchcraft persecutions and physicians’ campaigns to push midwives out of business — stirred up anti-abortion sentiments among elites, abortions were available to many women, including married ones trying to plan their families, even as prohibitions spread.

In his book, Riddle documents the use of cotton root bark among enslaved women, who brought the knowledge of abortifacients from Africa, and early 19th century published guides that offered instructions. Even where open discussion became taboo, medical advice would be delivered through talk of herbal “emmenagogues” — a euphemism for abortifacients.

Certainly, many lawmakers in England and America wanted to restrict abortion, but their reasons were often highly questionable, including concern about female immorality and the assumption that wombs and fetuses were male property. Journalist and academic Emily Bell writes on Twitter that the 17th century jurist whom Alito cites to bolster his position “had at least two women executed for witchcraft and wrote a treatise supporting marital rape.” Some precedent! 

Facing increasingly restrictive laws in the 19th century, some American women turned to newspaper advertisers, buying patent medicine or “wonder” elixirs that promised to manage reproduction issues. The difference was that, instead of relying on trusted experts they knew, such as midwives, these growing constraints forced women to turn to faceless snake-oil salesmen, who may or may not have been peddling safe products. Later, as the knowledge of botanical drugs for reproduction management faded, they turned to unsafe surgical procedures and other dangerous methods.

Though botanical abortifacients were often effective historically, Riddle warns that women today would be ill-advised to try them. Herbal abortifacients can present many, many variables, and even a small error in handling can result in toxicity. Their efficacy and safety depended on careful preparations — from the time a plant is harvested, to the method of extraction to the timing and frequency of dosage. Much of the historical knowledge of abortifacients has been lost and obscured for a wide range of reasons, including poor translations of ancient works, deliberate suppression and a break with folk tradition characteristic of modern medicine.

Yet some American women denied access to abortion may end up turning to the internet for botanical abortion remedies, either out of desperation, distrust of modern medicine, the desire for privacy or some combination of these reasons. 

In Texas, a state with relatively few clinics that provide abortions, for example, a 2020 study found that local women were three times more likely than those in other states to try do-it-yourself abortion, including using herbs. That was based on data from 2009 to 2014, well before the state’s recent draconian laws banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

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A 2021 study revealed that some American women are turning to herbs for their self-managed abortions. Reasons for these SMAs included the need to secure a “last resort” abortion and a stated preference for “homoeopathic remedies,” according to the study.

And in countries where abortion laws are restrictive, a 2018 study found, women conducted online searches for “herbs like parsley, cinnamon, vitamin C, aspirin and abortion teas (herbal concoctions)” in seeking information about DIY abortions. 

Should conservatives on the Supreme Court strike down Roe v. Wade, they still won’t be able to blot out human nature and human history. They will just make life more dangerous and precarious for women in America today. Some refer to GOP politics as “medieval.” That’s an insult to medieval people — many of whom understood women’s reproductive and family planning needs far better than Justice Alito.