For thousands of years, women have been told they must not break the rules or they’ll be punished, and even killed, by society. In the days before medical science was advanced enough to safely and effectively terminate pregnancies, women would turn to their midwives or herbalists, or witches to procure herbs that would help them safely abort their pregnancies. The midwives were often successful in helping women with abortions and would use herbs, such as pennyroyal and black cohosh, which were traditionally used to help with menstrual cramps and other female problems.
Midwifery and Abortion in The Old Word
The earliest known references to abortion occur in ancient times. In these cultures, it was common practice for people to use a variety of plants and herbs to induce an abortion. Plants such as Rue, Mugwort, Pennyroyal, Yarrow, Savin, Rue, and other herb species have long been used to either prevent pregnancy, or terminate a pregnancy if one occurs. In most cases in ancient Greece and Rome, midwives were responsible for providing pregnant women with abortive herbs. The most common abortifacient herbs contained ingredients such as pennyroyal and savin oil.
Another herb named Asphodel was used in ancient Greece and Rome but it was rarely taken by itself. Instead, a combination of different herbs were used to induce abortion which resulted in about an 80% success rate for women trying to terminate their pregnancy. If these herbs failed, however, birth control techniques such as infanticide or expelling a newborn through induced labor would often be attempted. While some midwives did engage in this practice they were often regarded as witches and were prosecuted during witch trials in medieval Europe, despite being largely respected as healers at that time.
Midwifery and Abortion in Early Modern Europe | 500 – 1600 AD
Abortion was generally not punishable by law until about the middle of the 17th century. In some cases, abortion and infanticide were not treated as separate crimes but as a singular crime under homicide legislation. Though midwives were legally required to report any abortions they observed in their practice, there is no evidence that women accused of attempted abortion ever went to trial or faced harsh punishments. The church deemed abortion a sin, but it was also widely accepted that many pregnancies occurred in excess due to illicit sexual activity; thus, though frowned upon, attempts at aborting unwanted children were not considered murder.
Contraception and Family Planning
These charges eventually led to accusations being levied against a woman’s use of birth control, contraception, and family planning. This was partly because they were sometimes seen as a form of abortion. Early modern Europe witnessed tremendous amounts of witch hunts and trials, where individuals were accused—not only by their enemies—of practicing witchcraft; these accusations could bring with them not only social ostracization and punishment but often also death sentences.
Early modern medical professionals associated birth control with abortion. The terms abortion and child murder were synonymous and often used interchangeably in secular documents. Women accused of practicing witchcraft would be tortured or drowned if they confessed to these charges; however, few women ever confessed under such interrogation. Those who did not confess were either released or burned at a stake for committing other crimes associated with witchcraft, such as using magic to harm others or using charms. The charges against them often included claims that they had also taken part in other rituals including cannibalism and incest—such as sodomy—that upset society’s moral order.
Secret Abortion Remedies in Colonial America | 1600s – Mid-1800s
During a time when women were viewed as property, and girls were seen as commodities who could be sold to secure their families’ futures, abortion was punished by death. Specifically, midwives who performed abortions without consent from a husband or father faced charges of witchcraft. These midwives, who served women and helped them in secret, often learned herbal remedies for inducing abortion and miscarriage.
In 1632, Governor John Winthrop charged Mrs. Joan Brodrel with witchcraft because she delivered a woman’s baby after both had been arrested for unnatural sex. The charges were eventually dropped, but she was forced to pay his court fees. In addition, her son paid two shillings and sixpence for cursing his father. Mr. Cotton Mather also claimed that Sarah Good and Tituba were guilty of murdering babies by enchanting away their births in 1692. Both women died in prison from unknown causes—though it’s possible they may have had health issues before being incarcerated—and all-male midwives involved were acquitted when tried for practicing abortion without consent from fathers or husbands.
Though most witches during that time were men, women midwives were also sometimes charged with witchcraft for providing abortions and herbal remedies. In 1666 in England, a man was arrested for giving an abortion pill to a woman named Mary Clarke. Ms. Clarke was arrested shortly after with her midwife Elizabeth Cellier, who was charged with witchcraft because she had provided Ms. Clarke with a drink to procure an abortion. Both women died in prison and after an investigation by King Charles II, those responsible for their deaths were tried for murder by burning them at stake. That’s how serious it was to provide abortions without consent from husbands or fathers during that time period!
The Vilainization of Midwives in Modern Times | Mid-1800s – 1970
During the early decades of midwifery, many of these women were accused by doctors and members of religious clergy of practicing witchcraft and satanic rituals. In fact, there is documented evidence that many obstetricians claimed that midwives performed abortions with herbs. Even though herbal methods had been used to induce miscarriage in times gone by (as early as ancient Greece), once these practices were combined with midwifery, they became a cause for alarm. Doctors and clergy demanded an end to such practices because they believed it reflected negatively on their profession. Some midwives were even tried and burned at the stake.
Despite having a sound knowledge base, midwives were frequently regarded as dangerous individuals who used witchcraft and herbology to perform abortions. It was even believed that some midwives were in league with witches and Satan. Because of these claims, many midwives were burned at the stake or persecuted in other ways. They had little legal protection under most countries’ laws and none whatsoever under English common law. It wasn’t until 1803 when Sweden began regulating midwifery that women could legally perform as midwives. By doing so, they offered these women some degree of legal protection against persecution based on witchcraft allegations.
American Midwife Regulations | 1970 – Present Day
In 1970, a report commissioned by President Nixon made one recommendation that would change midwives and their entire practice forever. The recommendation? Move midwives from nurse-midwives to physician-midwives. This meant that all future education for midwives would come from medical doctors and not from nursing. As one may predict, there was immediate pushback from nurse-midwives and other proponents of midwifery in America.
But opponents were wrong about midwives only practicing herbs and folklore. Of course, some relied on these tools to ease pain in childbirth; but others used advanced medical techniques that were prohibited from use on American women.
An Epilogue on Choice
Just as midwives have historically been called witches and tortured, today’s family planning providers are under attack by anti-choice organizations. In fact, just last month a bill was introduced in Kansas requiring abortion providers to provide patients with written information about alternatives to abortion. It is no coincidence that these restrictions fall disproportionately on rural areas where it is more difficult for patients to travel hundreds of miles for an abortion.
Roe v Wade has been overturned. The war on women’s reproductive rights wages on. But there is hope for women to regain control over their bodies and their health care. Today, midwives are a vital part of our country’s healthcare system, providing a holistic approach to pregnancy and childbirth that is often more in line with a woman’s values than the approach offered by many hospitals. And while midwives do not provide abortions, they do provide options for safe and legal abortion through referrals to other providers when necessary.