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  •  BOOK: Contraception & Abortion in Antiquity (none)

    Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance
    John M. Riddle
    Harvard University Press, 1992

    Riddle analyzes ancient contraceptive medical practices and finds that contraception and abortion were safe, effective, and commonly used. (At least, they were as safe as carrying a pregnancy to term.)

    1)       "In 1936 Norman Himes published a history of contraceptives. For the classical period he concluded, that oral contraceptives ("potions") were not effective and, second, that the knowledge of the few other contraceptive devices that worked (specifically, vaginal suppositories) was "confined largely to the heads of medical encyclopedists, to a few physicians and scholars." In the coming chapters, I suggest that their knowledge was primarily transmitted by a network of women working within the culture of their gender and that only occasionally was some of it learned by medical writers, almost all of whom were male." page 16

    1.       "The demographic depression that occurred in western Europe between the 1430s and the 1480s may have been caused by ergotism from a contaminated supply of rye bread, which in turned reduced fertility." page 17

    2.       "According to convention and the law, ancient women could employ contraceptives and early stage abortifacients virtually without consequences. The same was true in medieval Islam and to some degree in Christian society during the Middle ages. The question is whether they knew the agents to control fertility and how effective these agents were.

          Modern explanations have largely ignored chemical means of family planning because, until recent scientific and anthropological findings, we did not believe them to be effective. The writings of the Romans and medieval sources speak often about oral contraceptives. Modern writers, as we noted, have denied the effectiveness of oral contraceptives among the ancients." page 23

    4)       In antiquity, "[u]nless a woman was demonstrably and visibly pregnant, she was not pregnant until she so declared." page 27

          "How extensive a father's rights were to protect a fetus is unknown, according to what we know of Greek law. Clearly, as Richard Feen concluded, the crime of abortion was not the killing of a fetus or embryo but he depriving the father of his right to an heir." page 63

    5)       Speaking about Cyrene in North Africa and the plant silphium in the 5th century BC: "For centuries the city's coins had carried the image of the plant, which was its distinctive symbol. One may wonder why a plant would make a city famous. Soranus told us: it was a contraceptive- one of the best in the ancient world. Its popularity, however, drove it to extinction probably soon after Soranus' time." page 28

          "The best of the related plants, the plant found only near Cyrene, was silphium, which prevented unwanted pregnancies. It became extinct in part because of its value and restricted habitat." page 28

    1.       "Of the ten plants Soranus mentioned in these four recipes, modern medical science has judged eight as having an effect as contraceptives and abortifacients/ emmenagogues. One of the other two is likely to have an antifertility effect, while the final plant, rocket, has not been studied. In the case of rue, present Chinese, Latin American, and Indian medical authorities recognize its abortifacient quality, with one manual warning that pregnant women should avoid even small amounts of it because of its "emmenagogue properties." " page 29

    2.       "The latest and probably the best modern reference about medicinal plants is James A. Duke's Handbook of Medicinal Herbs (1985). Duke reports on twenty-seven contraceptive plants, but of there only eight are in Dioscorides." page 56

    3.       "Enzo Nardi, John Noonan, and Marie-Therese Fontanille have collected the classical references in literature to birth control. The corpus of references is substantial. The evidence is compelling that abortion and contraception were a part of the everyday world of classical antiquity." page 64

    4.       Regarding a discourse on Aspasia (she wrote on abortion): "Aspasia is likely a pseudonym; although the name is feminine, there is no reason to assume that the author was female." page 97 My comment: there is no reason to assume that she isn't a woman, to assume that a man took a female pseudonym. Do I detect a small amount of pigginess in an otherwise outstanding work?

    5.       "In Muslim society, the evidence of continuous usages of oral contraceptives and early stage abortifacients is abundant - even overwhelming - as shown by B. F. Musallam. In Islam, the soul comes to the conceptus at the end of 120 days (four months by lunar calendar). The authority, dating back to Hebrew scripture and Aristotle, came more directly from the Prophet. All Muslim jurists accepted this, but different interpretations were taken on abortion. The Hanafi jurists permitted a woman to abort, even without the husband's permission (though she should have cause), before 120 days. Shafi'i and Hanbali jurists, however, disagreed but could not agree on a lower limit of 40 days or 80 or 120. Most Malikis prohibited abortion at any time on the basis of potentiality for ensoulment. All could agree on one thing: contraception was acceptable and not prohibited by God's law. As a consequence, Arabic medical writings explored both contraceptive and early stage abortificients, perhaps to the limits that critical, concerted medical observation permit." page 127

    6.       "If they had been totally ineffective, would so many people - ranging from high ecclesiastical and medical authorities down to Pierre and Beatrice - have been so wrong? . . .

          Whatever can be written about the hailed placebo effect does not apply to birth control measures. Full-term pregnancy simply cannot be psychosomatic. If a person takes a drug and has potentially fertile intercourse, he or she cannot know whether it worked if pregnancy is not an outcome. If she becomes pregnant, on the other hand, she knows that it did not work. Scientific studies aside, a reasoned argument for the effectiveness of the contraceptives and early stage abortificients in this study is their persistent presence in the records. If they were not effective, would people have had confidence in them generation after generation, from the time of the earliest Egyptian medical records? Would the historical data have shown such vitality and variability in the medical works, such as judged by the discovery of new agents and the fact that most writers wrote innovatively about the experiences with drugs? If, in contrast, the agents were merely placebos at best, magic at worst, would not the documents have been stylized, inelastic, and static, with one writer copying from the other (as did some times happen, more often in works on magic)? If we are correct about the usage of birth control agents being sufficiently effective and widespread as to give people some control over reproduction, how then do we explain the apparent near loss of this information in the modern period?

          Had it been left without religious and moral restrictions, the Renaissance should have been a great period for increased knowledge and awareness of birth control agents. First and foremost, there were the humanists, whose zest for classical lore led them further and further back to the Greek and Latin classics with such fervor that they produced the Renaissance. . . . A new verb entered the vocabulary of European tongues: "botanize," meaning to explore for plants. The purpose was not the plants qua plants but plants qua medicine. . . .

          The second factor that should have stimulated birth control information was the discovery of the New World and the suddenly enlarged number of plant species that could have contributed new agents, especially with information from the American Indians. . . .

          A third factor was the secularization of the northern Italian urban states. . . . Many of the larger cities - Venice, Florence, Pisa - had their own universities that were not controlled by the local bishop, who otherwise would have insisted on some degree of doctrinal compliance. . .

          Finally, the university culture emphasized the rational forms of human behavior and decried the mystical, magical, and superstitious." page 145 - 146

    12)       "Gynecology fell more and more to midwives, who received no formal training from the university. The physicians had their place only when female medical problems called for drastic or nonroutine action. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, few physicians knew about birth control agents, simply because it was not part of their training in becoming doctors, nor was there a ready means to learn about them during regular practice. The chain of learning broke, and the chain of folk knowledge nearly broke.

    How much of a factor the pronatal policies of societies and the opposition to birth control by the Christian church were is difficult to determine, but they must have had some effect. . . ." page 157

    1.       "During the sixteenth century, it was not just a matter involving sexual activity and reproduction. The possibility of contracting syphilis meant that there was no safe way to have sex. Some daughters may not have been told about the drugs to take to avoid pregnancy for fear that this assurance could lead to sexual activity and potentially fatal consequences." page 157

    2.       To explain the loss of knowledge about the contraceptive effects of plants, Riddle makes no mention of the estimated 100,000 to 9 million women, many (maybe 1/3) of whom were midwives who were tortured and who died as witches during the 14th-17th centuries.

          Riddle also fails to mention the low regard in which women were held - men were probably just too damn proud to admit that they could learn anything from women. He also does not mention that male university trained physicians were in financial competition with untrained midwives for patients. By acknowledging that these wise women had something to teach, the physicians undermined their air of authority which was their greatest asset because they did not have knowledge. ( Once again women died at the hands of quacks so that ignorant, pompous men might grow rich.)

    1.       "In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the knowledge of contraception and abortificients continued to decline." page 160

    2.       "In 1869 Pope Pius IX declared the new church position on ensoulment, namely, that it occurs at conception." page 162 - Is the encyclical in which a Pope finally settled a 2500-year-long argument, which started with the pre-Christian, pagan Aristotle, by declaring that women do indeed have souls?

    3.       "We have seen indications in all periods that folk experimentation led to the discovery of new drugs to contracept and to abort, while some of the drugs, which were judged less effective or available and more dangerous, were dropped from use. Folk experimentation and observation took place in ways resembling what Theophrastus related about the wild carrot's fertility effects on cattle. . . People observed the effects that plants had on animals and on themselves and learned what to take to prevent or end pregnancy at the same time that they learned how to avoid unwanted terminations.

    Right up to the twentieth century,. women have affirmed their right to take menstrual regulators, even when it aborted pregnancy, up until the fetus moved or quickened. If pregnancy continued, there were stronger, late stage abortificients and manipulations or surgical procedures, which were dangerous and risky. " pages 163-164

    1.       "A number of anthropological-historical studies from Nigeria, China, Korea, the Soviet Union, Haita, New Mexico, Egypt, Malasia, and India reveal that traditional societies are employing various antifertility agents. If modern populations can regulate their fertility by plant drugs, surely so could premodern societies, because there is strong evidence that similar methods and agents were being used then." page 164

    2.       Riddle neglects to use the argument that most of our modern drugs are derived from plants which were part of folk medicine.

    It is an American value to care for each other.
    Vote Kerry/Edwards on November 2nd, to bring our soldiers home safely.

    by Daemmern on Mon Oct 11, 2004 at 02:10:37 AM PDT

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