RuthSte (ruthste) wrote in little_details,

Terminating pregnancy in Colonial US

Setting: approx.1778 - Southern Pennsylvania

Character is a healthy 24 year old, who suspects they are between one and two months pregnant (based on their last full cycle and when they last had intercourse). Continuing the pregnancy to term is not an option for them and they don't want to risk waiting any longer. I understand herbal teas would have been used in this situation but am not entirely clear on which herbs would be most likely/easy to obtain and their likely effectiveness (the only figures I can find are modern ones). I'm also interested in the penalties if the character was found out.

My preferred scenario is that the character is indeed pregnant, that the herbal tea ends the pregnancy and that they are able to safely confide in a third party (who suspects them and could potentially identify what they drank) without fear of prosecution. I will take a workable scenario where the tea works as an emmenagogue and simply brings on menstruation (since the characters are unlikely to be able to tell the difference) or even a coincidental miscarriage.

Google search terms - abortifacients; natural/herbal abortifacients; herbal teas for abortions; herbal abortifacients in colonial us; abortion in colonial us

Little Details tags searched - 1700s; 1700s; usa:history(misc); medicine:reproduction found this post:

I'm getting a lot of contradictory information: on the one hand, that 'abortion' was both accepted and legal up until 'quickening' and OTOH, that only a few desperate women would go to this extent and that they could be prosecuted for child murder if caught.

The commonest herbs seem to be pennyroyal, rue, and tansy, and all seem to have existed in this area and time period but I can't work which my character would be most likely to use, nor find how common they were as plants and/or how easy to procure. The character is not collecting the herbs themselves but has a sympathetic friend providing them ready to brew (presumably dried?). On I found a recipe for a brew to "produce profuse menstrual flow" which I understand was possibly a euphemism for abortion?

I have found a reasonable amount of information on how the herbs would work, if successful, but not really how likely they were to be successful either. I know dosage is a big part of it but narrative license means I don't need to worry about my character poisoning themselves, I just want it to be believable that it works. It looks like they might have to drink multiple cups over several days.

I understand that attitudes to terminating a pregnancy probably varied as much then as now but a lot of the information I'm finding seems to involve cherry-picking quotes either way which doesn't give me any way of judging what the reasonable range of reactions for my third party (an officer in the Continental Army) would be.

Thanks in advance

ETA (28 Jan): thanks for the comments - all very helpful. Some useful answers and some new things to look at. I'd still welcome any additional comments about precise dosages (particularly to confirm if whichever 'remedy' they choose needs to be taken over multiple doses)
Tags: 1770-1779, usa: history (misc), ~medicine: historical, ~medicine: reproduction

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