Whatever your stance on abortion, it’s hard to deny that an aborted fetus is repulsive to look at, despite all the technological advances made in gynecology over the years.
But at least modern women can terminate their pregnancies in sterile environments using high-tech equipment that presents minimal risks to their health. Women in olden days were not nearly so fortunate. In order to expel an unwanted fetus, they were forced to employ extreme and potentially fatal methods that make modern suction abortions look like a ballet company’s performance of Swan Lake by comparison. Here is a baker’s dozen of such methods.
1. Swallowing poisonous herbs and potions.
Chinese documents from nearly 5,000 years ago prescribe drinking hot mercury immediately after sex to kill a potentially fertilized egg. Throughout history and across the globe, women have ingested a stomach-scalding array of concoctions designed to slay their unwanted fetuses by inducing menstruation. Some of the more eyebrow-raising components of such lethal potions include strychnine, gunpowder, lye, bleach, crushed ants, camel hair, lead, white phosphorus, quinine, copper sulfate, belladonna, mandrake, stinking iris, and an herb known as “prostitute’s root.”
2. Shaking yourself so hard that the embryo falls out.
For millennia, women who were trying to unshackle themselves from the ball and chain growing between their legs were counseled to go mountain-climbing, cliff-diving, horse-riding, weightlifting, perform back-breaking labor, throw themselves down a flight of stairs, jump up and down so vigorously that their feet hit their butt cheeks in midair, or be severely shaken by two strong men.
3. Pounding down with brute force on your abdomen.
The oldest known visual depiction of an abortion is from Cambodia circa 1150 AD, and it shows an underworld demon hitting a woman’s abdomen with a mallet to induce abortion:
Other such blunt-force methods included pounding the woman’s belly with a bat, a meat pulverizer, and aggressive abdominal kneading. As my older brother tells the story, my father actually tried aborting me by punching my mother in the stomach. As dad would find out when I was around 16, his punch wasn’t nearly as hard as mine.
This insane and archaic medical practice—wherein a patient is “cured” by being bled nearly to death—was used to treat all manner of illnesses for thousands of years and presumably failed in every case. The presumption was that bloodletting would induce menstruation and abort the fetus rather than merely make a pregnant woman much weaker.
5. Squatting over a steaming pot of onions.
A Sanskrit text from the 8th century recommends that pregnant women who wish to abort should squat over a boilin’ pot of onions. This ancient tradition was said to have persisted through the centuries and was even used by Jewish women on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 1900s. Other such methods of steam-induced vaginal “fumigation” swapped out onions for things such as medicinal herbs and human hair.
6. Fetus-killing tampons.
Known as “pessaries,” these were vaginal suppositories soaked in revolting substances such as mouse poop, turpentine, goose fat, foam from a camel’s mouth, and the fungus known as ergot. Once shoved inside the vagina, they proved toxic to developing fetuses. Sometimes these “tampons” were even alive, as in instances where women placed squirming leeches inside their vaginas to induce a miscarriage.
7. Stabbing your vagina with sharp objects.
Rather than the modern scalpels and forceps, freelance abortionists of yore would perform “embryotomies” by jabbing at the developing fetus with things such as whale bones, hooks, glass rods, coat-hangers, curling irons, candles, knives, needles, spikes, reeds, tree branches, and even common vegetables.
Even into the late 1800s it was thought that pulling a pregnant woman’s tooth without anesthesia—whether or not she actually needed the tooth removed—would cause such howling pain that she’d naturally abort her fetus.
9. Aggressive douching.
For centuries women resorted to having liquids injected into their cooches in their desperate attempt to terminate their unwanted pregnancies. Such liquids included gin, turpentine, water mixed with cayenne pepper, soap water, saltwater, and all other manner of fetus-scalding vaginal enemas.
10. Girdles that are so tight, they squeeze the fetus to death.
This practice extends back to ancient Rome as well as the Maori tribespeeps of New Zealand. In the third century AD, Hippolytus of Rome wrote that women would purposely bind their waists so tightly, it would “expel what was being conceived.”
11. Starving yourself until the fetus withers like a raisin.
Just like a pregnant woman is “eating for two,” a pregnant woman who starves herself is “starving for two,” with the obvious intent being that the fetus starves to death first.
12. VERY hot water.
Over the years women have attempted to stop their fetuses dead in their tracks by taking extremely hot baths and showers or even going the extra mile and having hot water poured directly onto their bellies. This was intended to aggravate the vagina’s mucous membranes and spontaneously induce abortion.
13. Electrical shocks.
In an 1810 book called The Female Medical Repository, it was recommended that electricity could “restore discharge” and thus induce abortion. In his 1817 Letter to Ladies, writer Thomas Ewell suggested that a shot of electricity around the thighs may shock the fetus into aborting. It would be a few more years before the electrical motor was invented, so it’s unclear how many fetuses actually faced the abortive equivalent of the electric chair.