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The Pill's Precursors

Allen Killam

Eve's Herbs. John M. Riddle. 341 pp. Harvard University Press, 1997. $39.95.

Athough this exhaustive accounting of abortion and women's contraception from ancient to modern times opens with a discussion of Roe v. Wade, the bulk of the book is a history of herbs that women used to control fertility and of the forces that have limited herb use.

The author seeks to convince the reader that these herbs were effective as contraceptives and sometimes in terminating pregnancy. The evidence he cites is not limited to testimonials common to herbal remedies but also includes scientific experiments on animals. There is ample evidence from the 5th century b.c. that fertility-controlling herbs were well known to the Greeks and their physicians. These herbs included pennyroyal used now as a tea. Most modern women are unaware that pennyroyal can cause abortion. The author notes that Egyptian papyrus in 1500 b.c. contained a recipe for preventing pregnancy. He also uses European population statistics from 400 b.c. through 1970 and fertility rates of different, far-flung communities to show how herbal methods effectively controlled fertility, and he documents the growing effort to squelch the knowledge, availability and use of these herbs during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The authorities targeted midwives for their use of herbal concoctions. They were portrayed as witches and persecuted, stripped of their usual status as wise women and primary caregivers to pregnant women. Trials became increasingly frequent as the 20th century approached. Before Roe v. Wade, securing an abortion in the United States primarily involved an illegal procedure. Afterward, legal abortions became readily available at centers staffed by licensed practitioners. Also, in Western countries, birth-control pills, abortion pills, surgical sterilization and barrier techniques combined to lower fertility rates below the level needed to replace current populations.

The author wisely avoids becoming a strong advocate for either side of several controversial issues surrounding women's rights, abortion rights and the right to life. Readers expecting passion and controversy may feel disappointed that this book does not concentrate on the ethical or moral merit of herb use for abortion and contraception but rather on their extensive use by women over most of recorded history.—Allen P. Killam, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Duke University Medical Center

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