[Marxism] a brief material history of contraception and abortion

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Wed Dec 6 18:23:31 MST 2006

Books and Arts

Nature 444, 685 (7 December 2006) | doi:10.1038/444685a; Published 
online 6 December 2006
In retrospect: The birth of contraception

Michel Raymond
BOOK REVIEWED-Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the 

by John M. Riddle

Harvard University Press: 1992
In retrospect: The birth of contraception

The contraceptive pill — what a wonderful invention! At last, we could 
have a fulfilling sex life, free from worry about the mischief wreaked 
by uncontrollable gametes, and could separate the desires for pleasure 
and reproduction. Let's spare a thought for our poor ancestors, who were 
faced with the choice of reproducing like rabbits or miserably limiting 
their sex lives. We've made real progress since then.

Or at least that's what people thought when science delivered modern 
contraception in the twentieth century. For some reason, this myth — and 
it is one — still holds, 14 years after the publication of John Riddle's 
book Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance.

Birth control, by contraception and abortion, has a long history. In the 
ancient world there were precise recipes, as we know from books written 
by the doctors of the time (Soranus, Dioscorides and Hippocrates). These 
doctors obtained their knowledge from direct contact with ordinary 
people. One plant in particular was said to be a contraceptive — a giant 
fennel, Ferula historica. It was so sought after and harvested in such 
quantities that it became extinct.

In the Middle Ages, when universities started teaching medicine, 
knowledge began to be passed from doctors to their pupils, the next 
generation of doctors. Contraception was conspicuous by its absence in 
these courses for men, and such knowledge was lost among doctors. 
However, it was still transmitted between women — at least while the 
traditional way of life continued.

I visited an old alpine village this year that had continued to use 
traditional agricultural practices until about 20 years ago. An old 
peasant of 92 told me about a plant with potent contraceptive properties 
— knowledge she had obtained from her grandmother, who must have learnt 
about it from her family. The plant concerned was a kind of juniper, the 
key part being the berries. According to Riddle's book, juniper (which 
has 23 entries in the index) has been used in contraceptive recipes 
since ancient times. The common name of one species of juniper, the 
savin (Juniperus sabina), was derived from its ability to save young 
women from shame, and modern science has finally confirmed its 
contraceptive effects. Many of the plants mentioned in old books have 
had their contraceptive properties confirmed — most of them contain 

This traditional knowledge, traces of which remain in the memories of 
some Europeans, started to disappear with depopulation of the 
countryside in the nineteenth century: in towns, ancient knowledge 
ceased to be transmitted. Probably for the first time since the 
Graeco-Roman era (at least), most Western women no longer had access to 
an effective means of contraception. The contribution of modern 
medicine, culminating in the pill, therefore constituted real progress, 
but it must be seen in the context of history.

Riddle shows us that ancient contraceptive medical practices were safe, 
effective and commonly used. Sociological studies on their use remain to 
be carried out. But it is possible that, between the Middle Ages and the 
rise of modern contraception, the well-off and city dwellers had little 
access to effective contraception, thanks to the growth of conventional 
medicine and the soaring social power of the physician.

This is just one of the many intriguing lines of investigation to arise 
from this book, which shines a different light on what we are generally 
taught about the 'progress' of the modern world.

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