A Cup of Sage Tea: Induced Abortion Has a Long History in Women’s Health Care

“Reading my Culpeper and feeling a bit blown away to learn sage is an abortifacient!”

This is the message I sent to the two women (my sister-in-law, Melissa, and friend, Kelly) who I went to the introductory herbalism class with. I was sitting on my back porch in the heat of July, trying to learn about plants. I thought I’d start with the ones in my yard. Sage is one I like to keep on hand. It is easy to grow. It sometimes survives Iowa winters. And it smells great in a bonfire. When my copy of Culpeper arrived, I started by reading the entry on Common Garden Sage. Culpeper says:

A decoction of the leaves and branches provokes the urine, brings down women’s courses and expels the dead child. (162)

Whoa.

The history of herbal contraception often comes up in the courses I teach. When we discuss people’s lives in the past, students often want to know the nitty-gritty details. And when the subject is the history of sex or women’s history or the history of childbirth, students always want to know how women attempted to manage their reproductive timelines. They assume that women had no means of doing so, that there were no contraceptives, and abortion was always illegal, so an unlikely celibacy was the only option. But this was not the case. As I will discuss in other posts, there were/are many herbs that, like sage, can “bring down women’s courses.” Taken on a daily basis, they can help to prevent implantation. Taken early enough in a pregnancy, they can induce an abortion.

Abortion, many people are surprised to learn, was not debated in the way we do today until the mid-1970s. Moreover, Roe v. Wade did not overturn centuries of precedent; rather, it restored induced abortion to a legal status more in line with how things had been prior to 1900. The first laws regulating induced abortion only began appearing in the United States in the mid-19th century. This was not so much the result of a morality campaign as it was a professional one. Licensed (male) physicians wanted to drive out traditional (female) midwives. Banning abortion was one means of doing so. By roughly 1900 abortion was prohibited everywhere in this country. It’s not that previous generations did not care about fetal death — they absolutely did. But only infanticide was a crime (often punishable by death). A charge of infanticide required evidence that the fetus had taken a breath after birth. If there was no evidence of this, then the situation was understood as a stillbirth or miscarriage. Mothers might mourn the loss of a wanted pregnancy, but those who sought to terminate an unwanted pregnancy could do so with a bit of a medical smokescreen.

Sweet bunny. Let’s not tell it about the history of the pregnancy test. Image source: Wikimedia.

Until the 1930s, there were no reliable tests for pregnancy. Instead, confirmation of a pregnancy could only be made through irrefutable physical evidence. First, around 16-18 weeks post-conception, an expectant woman begins to feel fetal movement. Called ‘quickening,’ this milestone occurs when you know for sure that it is definitely not just gas. Later, the fetus’s movements become detectable to outside observers who can feel and see kicking, punching, flip-flopping, and hiccups. But until that undeniable flutter of quickening occurred, and until it could be corroborated by a witness, there were any number of reasons why a woman might have stopped menstruating, including some sort of blockage. To restore her health, the dominant medical beliefs dictated that the blockage had to be removed and the flow restored. To make this happen, medical practitioners turned to emmenagogues, substances, usually herbal medicines, that could start or increase menstrual flow.

Midwifery and other medical references long have included cautions against the ingestion of certain herbs for fear of disrupting a pregnancy. These words of warning generally appeared within a recipe that claimed to be useful in restoring the menses when they have been disrupted in some way. The caution would be that ingesting the herbs when there might be a pregnancy could potentially cause miscarriage or fetal death. This was especially necessary in those times and places when inducing abortion was frowned upon or illegal. Even in the United States, pills promising to restore the menses were marketed in catalogs and newspapers. “Whatever you do, don’t do this if you might be pregnant…”

Culpeper’s entry on sage.

I already was familiar with this history, but somehow sage never appeared in the lists of cautionary herbs I had seen. Tansy: yes. Queen Anne’s Lace: yes. Black Cohosh: yes. Pennyroyal: yes. Sage: nope. So, I was startled. Sage suddenly seemed very dangerous for a backyard garden. For a brief moment, I even panicked that perhaps my own pregnancy losses years ago were related to an overconsumption of sage. (Of course they were not. The dosages required are far beyond that used in everyday cooking. But, wow, that trauma never seems to go away.)

Once I started looking for it, commentary on sage and pregnancy seemed to be everywhere. Culpeper certainly is not alone in his caution. Even contemporarysources warn against its ingestion — in very large quantities — during pregnancy.

But the same qualities that make sage a potential abortifacient also make it really useful for other aspects of female health. Sage tea can be a wonderful resource for combatting hot flashes or mood swings, for example. For mothers needing to reduce or eliminate their production of breastmilk, sage teas and poultices should do the trick.

In case you are wondering if sage is only good for the ladies, this is not so. Sage can improve memory and moods. As an antimicrobial, it can help fight infection, and can ease the discomfort of a sore throat or cough. And, as Culpeper advises, “Drank with vinegar, it is good for the plague.” Sage advice, indeed.

P.S. Thanks to Donna Drucker for sharing the article linked under Pennyroyal with me!

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