BY GENEVIEVE PFEIFFER
Otherwise known as abortifacients (pronounced abort-if-ay-sh-i-ents). But maybe this isn’t the most comprehensive way to describe my obsession, since I’m also interested in herbs that prevent pregnancy, and herbs that bring about menstruation (which can be late for many reasons, including but not always due to pregnancy).
These herbs are available everywhere, and to everyone. You can access them regardless of your income, biological sex, and location. If you can’t grow them in your garden, pick them in a local park or forest (or ditch) you can buy them online. They aren’t illegal, and they are inconspicuous. A single woman in rural Mississippi, with a little research, can purchase the right herbs without raising the eyebrow of a check-out clerk or mail carrier.
Many of these herbs are safe to use, and are part of our staple diet, such as ginger and parsley. Other herbs, generally stronger herbs such as tansy and pennyroyal, should be used with more care. But for a woman in an abusive relationship, a few seeds of queen anne’s lace after sex could spare making her already tender situation more difficult to bare, and spare a child from being brought into an grave situation.
Why don’t we know more about herbs and their long role in birth control? This question dates back to the witch hunts, a time when the lines between the witch and the female midwife were blurred.
In Europe, as women were pushed out of medicine, and as abortion became a punishable crime (in some cases, punishable by death) knowledge of the herbs associated with witchcraft was erased from written record. Some pharmaceutical guides may have included the mention of ‘female pills’ or ‘menstrual evacuations’ as a reason to prescribe herbs, but eventually most of this information was passed down orally from woman to woman, and by a few pharmacists who risked persecution if found guilty of prescribing an herb that resulted in an abortion. As European colonization spread, the belief that abortion as wrong spread to other cultures, many of which had their own regional herbs used for birth control.
Today, if you are not a cis male, your pain continues to be taken less seriously. Illnesses that effect biological women more than men have been understudied. Biological women and men tend to experience pain differently, and many symptoms that we are told to watch out for are symptoms that men experience, not women.
While I’m not against birth control produced by the pharmaceutical companies, I prefer to learn about my body and the options that are available to me. I’ve personally had a lot of health issues which pharmaceutical medicine only exacerbated. Herbal birth control is one of those options, and it can be extremely beneficial to those who do not have access to other options. I’m okay with the connections between herbs and witchcraft, and I think it’ important to remember how our control over our fertility, and our connections with herbal medicine, was a large contribution to the witch trials and to colonization. It seems the question has always been: what can be more witchy than taking control of your body?
Genevieve Pfeiffer is the executive editor of Anomaly, an international journal of literature and art. She teaches literature at Westchester Community College and Pace University, and has facilitated workshops with both young children, and incarcerated women. Pfeiffer has been the writer in residence at The Platte-Clove Preserve and The Mall of Found. Recently, she was selected to participate in The Home School conference. Her work has been published in journals that include So to Speak: feminism + language + art, Crack the Spine, Stone Canoe, BlazeVox, and The Write Room. Genevieve is grateful for trees.