This is the third and last post in this series on abortion in the natural world. Humans are wild animals, special only in that we typically don’t consider ourselves wild animals. As animals, it’s no surprise that we share many life history characteristics, adaptations, and reproductive strategies with other animals. Here we conclude our discussion of abortion in the natural world with an ethnobotanical look at how females in indigenous cultures in North America have made choices about pregnancy for millennia.

Indigenous uses of abortifacients

A few years ago, someone gifted me a copy of the extensive ethnobotanical dictionary for North American plants Native American Medicinal Plants. The resource is a compilation of data anthropologist Daniel Moerman sifted from hundreds of primary resources, and the result is a fantastic reference guide. It contains the medicinal uses of more than 3,000 species used by 218 tribes across North America. The list, however long, reflects only a partial perspective on full range of traditional ecology knowledge that existed prior to European contact (note: I mostly use past tense here to describe these plant uses. While many of these plants are undoubtedly still in use, most of the sources are historical and much traditional ecological knowledge and cultural practices have been lost over the past four centuries).

Among the 60 or so categories of medicinal uses presented in the book, here we’re interested in just two: abortifacients, defined by Moerman as medicines: “designed to eliminate a pregnancy, induce an abortion, or ‘bring on a delayed period’ (an emmenagogue)” and contraceptives. Moerman lists nearly 100 genera as abortifacients and another 40 as contraceptives. The list reveals that abortion was both widespread and a very real and culturally significant part of indigenous life in North America.

Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) in Frogn, Norway (From wikipedia)

** It’s worth noting that this is not a list of plants that have been clinically tested for use as abortifacients, but rather a historical record of the plants that indigenous cultures in North American reportedly used as abortifacients. Just because an indigenous group used/uses a plant for a specific purpose does not necessarily mean that it is safe and/or effective.

The Cherokee used wild ginger as an "infusion taken 'to start periods.'"

Moerman’s descriptions are terse, but begin to hint at the flexibility a woman had in controlling her pregnancy and regulating the time of birth, something common in indigenous cultures across the globe. Many plants, like horseradish and dogbane, were recorded as being used for “obstructed menses,” which is just a euphemism for the early stages of pregnancies. The entry for spikenard ( Aralia racemosa) states: “Plant used to promote menstruation when stopped by a cold.” Because pregnancy suppresses a woman’s immune system, common colds can be, well, common early in the pregnancy. Other plants, like New Jersey tea, Ceanothus americanus, were used to abort a pregnancy when a fetus was injured late in the first trimester.

Unfortunately, while we might have a record of what plants were used to control pregnancy, we don’t have as clear a record of why abortifacients were so widespread (source). As mentioned above, timing births would have been important to sync up with seasons of plenty. Most mammals have estrous cycles (a single breeding period during the year). Humans have menstrual cycles and can get pregnant (and therefore give birth) throughout the year, even if this might be disadvantageous. Historic records back to the 1800s bear this out, revealing a seasonality to when people are born. The father north you get from the equator, the earlier the average birthday – Finland’s average is April, Jamaica’s November – coinciding with the start of the growing season. Just like a bird! Other reasons identified for abortion may have related to delaying a first pregnancies, spacing out childbirths, or for the health of the mother.

Dogbane beetles mating on a dogbane leaf
Chart showing birth rates throughout the year (From Smithsonian)

List of Abortifacients

The table below is an incomplete list of abortifacients from across North America. I’ve also included notes on how the plants were used by various tribes (these are direct quotes from Moerman’s book). I’ll be updating this list on the blog as I finish transcribing notes from the book.

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