In the Heart of Africa


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I recently saw a fascinating website called EmGender: Malawi Gender Justice Research Network, created by Sarai Chisala, who is a Malawian expert on human rights law, especially relating to gender, HIV/AIDS, and race. Inspired by the #16 Days of Activism movement (that publicizes actions for progressive social change worldwide), Ms. Chisala provides portraits of some ordinary and extraordinary people fighting for gender equity and other aspects of social justice in Malawi. Among those she highlights are the Honorable Jessie Kabwila and other members of the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus who are advocating the reform of abortion laws. Malawi at present has extremely restrictive anti-abortion laws, and even the exception to save the life of a pregnant woman is interpreted narrowly. As in many countries with restrictive abortion laws, illegally induced abortion under unsafe conditions is common. The procedure accounted for 17% of maternal mortality in 2009, and about 30,000 women are treated for complications of septic abortion each year.

Other women mentioned on the EmGender site include sports stars, clothing designers, diplomats, judges, journalists, entrepreneurs, and a transgender activist. Their achievements are impressive, and Sarai Chisala hopes they demonstrate that Malawian women do not have to look outside the borders of their country for inspiration.

To follow in the footsteps of these role models, however, Malawian girls need education and training — things that were denied to the vast majority during the last decades of the 20th century. So-called structural adjustment policies (SAPs) mandated by international agencies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and USAID decreed that the government sector must drastically reduce expenses, and this meant, among other things, that primary schools had to impose fees. Those institutions were responsible for holding back the education of millions of girls throughout Africa.

I have only been in Malawi once, in 1997, but it was a memorable trip. Once, while my husband and I were approaching the village of Chembe on the shores of Lake Malawi (a choice destination for snorkeling enthusiasts such as us at the time) our car got stuck in the mud, and the children of Chembe gathered to talk to the tourists and watch them try to get their car out. I was struck by the fact that, while the boys spoke English and were in school, the rural girls (for whom the boys interpreted) were not in school — although they said they wanted to be. As in many places, parents often view girls’ education as less of a priority and in times of economic hardship are more likely to pull their daughters out of school than their sons.


This photo and the following caption are from
“According to UN statistics, although 27% of Malawi’s girls enroll in secondary school just 13% attend. Only a fraction of that 13% actually finish 4 years of secondary school and even fewer will pass their national final examinations that effectively qualify them as ‘graduates.’ [This means that] less than 7% of the women have attained a high school education.”

The effects of internationally-imposed SAPs were disastrous, and their complex consequences continue to be felt to this day. By the early 2000s the outcry from the Global South was too deafening to be ignored even by bureaucrats at the World Bank and USAID, who are normally arrogant and impervious to criticism. The Western “aid” establishment finally devoted some efforts to encouraging the education of girls.

But it turns out that repairing the damage done by decades of neglect of African girls is not so easy. Even when girls’ parents do pay the fees so they can attend school, they sometimes find a hostile environment where they are subject to discrimination, sexual harassment, and even rape by teachers and male pupils. Families often expect girls to continue to contribute to household income, something girls occasionally do by finding an (older) man to defray family expenses in exchange for sexual favors. Reliable birth control is expensive and not always available, so pregnancy is a constant concern and has derailed the ambitions of numerous African school girls. (My colleague Heather Switzer writes about these and other issues facing Maasai school girls in Kenya; similar worries face young women in many parts of the continent.) That is one reason why the work of the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus, EmGender, and other activists is so important. Getting girls into school is all well and good, but one must also provide the means for them to study in an environment conducive to their success.

Because anti-abortion laws are fundamentally misogynist, they are usually part of a whole complex of neglect and abuse of women and girls. That is true in the U.S., and it is also true in Africa. We should view the struggle for women’s reproductive rights as inextricably linked with other feminist campaigns, as Ms. Chisala does in her website.


Reproductive Justice a Theme of Conference in Puerto Rico


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Recently I attended the National Women’s Studies Association meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Among the dizzying array of panel presentations were two of particular interest to me. One focused on women of color creating organizations to support non-medicalized birthing options for poor women. The organizations, Birth Justice Project and Black Women Birthing Justice, sponsor classes for pregnant women in the California state prison system with the goal not only of obtaining better outcomes for their pregnancies but also training them to become doulas (informal birth assistants) after their release. The same panel featured a well-known Puerto Rican midwife, Rita Santiago, who was largely responsible for the resurgence of midwifery on the island. Historically midwives had handled virtually all births and most of the health needs of women and children in Puerto Rico. But when the U.S. assumed the colonial mantle of the Spanish at the beginning of the 20th century, the government and medical profession initiated a concerted campaign against midwives and in favor of hospital births attended by (largely male) physicians. These interventions had disastrous results for women’s health. Even now, Puerto Rican women have high Caesarian rates—approximately half of all babies on the island are delivered by Caesarian. These rates are well above the levels deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization. By comparison, Santiago noted that Cuba’s rates are low; about 8% of Cuban births are surgically managed, yet their maternal and infant mortality statistics are far better than those of Puerto Rico.

Another fascinating panel was organized by the Chicago Abortion Fund (CAF). CAF began thirty years ago with the goal of providing money for low-income women to obtain abortions after the Hyde Amendment cut off federal funds for the procedure. But they have branched out and adopted a reproductive justice (RJ) framework for their activism, which situates abortion access in the context of general health equity for low-income women and women of color. According to a CAF brochure, the broader orientation is necessary because “The mainstream reproductive rights movement has, in some instances, …been elitist and has ignored the needs of women of color and low-income women.” CAF has developed an abortion access toolkit that is widely used by other RJ-oriented activists around the country.

A poignant aspect of the abortion issue was brought to light in the discussion that followed the presentations. A young Latina woman in the audience asked how one deals with feelings of guilt about having an abortion. She is a high school student in a state that mandates so-called abstinence-only sex education, and she said that this, combined with the religious proscriptions drilled into them by Catholic and fundamentalist Christian parents, renders her and her peers unable to easily access birth control, terrified and uncertain where to turn when pregnancy results, and obsessed with the notion that they are betraying their culture or committing an unforgivable sin if they attempt to get an abortion.

The panelists were sympathetic, and CAF’s Latina intern said that she had suffered the same guilt when she terminated her own pregnancy. The advice offered by her and other panelists went along the lines of: remember that it’s your body and your life; you’re the best judge of what is right for you at this time. Certainly these statements are reasonable and can go some way toward assuaging guilt. However, I suggested an additional line of reasoning that might have some effect, especially on the young woman’s Catholic peers and (possibly) on their families. Namely, I pointed out that restrictions on abortion are relatively recent. Until 1869, when the Catholic Church banned the procedure, the Church had a flexible attitude toward abortion. I noted that Catholic saints and theologians (for example, St. Bridget, Hildegarde of Bingen, and Thomas Sanchez) and even a Pope (Peter of Spain, who became Pope John XXI) tolerated abortion, and some developed abortifacients themselves. I don’t know how much this information helped the young woman. But I am convinced that a significant component of making women of similar backgrounds more comfortable with their reproductive decisions is the disseminating of information on the wide acceptance of abortion in many cultures and circumstances both now and in the past.

An Airport Meeting with the Legendary Carol Downer


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On October 2 I had the pleasure of meeting for several hours with the famous second-wave feminist Carol Downer. For those who don’t know, Downer (born in 1933) was one of the founders of the women’s medical self-help movement. She and her fellow activists taught women all over the world to do their own cervical and breast examinations, and popularized a simple method of menstrual extraction by means of a two-tubed cannula. This technique, normally performed on the first day a woman’s period was due, ensured a state of non-pregnancy. In the early 1970s Downer and her associates created women-led clinics in southern California, many of which exist to this day. In 1972, Downer was arrested and charged with practicing medicine without a license for recommending yogurt as a treatment for yeast infections — in the feminist and progressive press the charge against Downer was derisively called “the Great Yogurt Conspiracy”. She was acquitted. Her vindication in the legal system contrasts sharply with the fate in 2014 of Jennifer Ann Whalen, now in prison in Pennsylvania for practicing medicine without a license after she ordered abortion pills for her daughter on the internet. Downer subsequently obtained a law degree, and for over forty years has been an outspoken advocate of women’s health and abortion rights.

Carol Downer contacted me after reading Sex and Herbs and Birth Control and arranged to route herself through Phoenix to meet with me on her way to a talk she was giving to African American midwives and doulas in New York. Our discussions were wide-ranging and frank. Among the topics touched upon were the ups and downs of her federation of women’s clinics, her international experiences promoting cervical self-examination, her disgust with the cavalier attitudes of many medical professionals and state legislators toward reproductive health issues, and the difficulties of attempting to interest American youth in progressive activism of any sort. Downer expressed deep reservations (which I share) about using the consumerist rhetoric of “choice” to refer to the right to access to a safe abortion. She also said that the women’s movement should have protested far more vigorously against the 1976 Hyde Amendment prohibiting federal funds from being used for abortion; activists at the time thought that it would have minimal impact and failed to see that it was merely the opening salvo in a steadily increasing barrage of attacks on women’s reproductive rights and health.

Downer was intrigued by the description in my book of abortifacients such as slippery elm sticks, which were inserted into the uterus by the midwives of several indigenous cultures to induce abortion. She commented that the midwives must have had extensive knowledge of the womb in order to place the sticks properly, and she speculated that they might have done self-examination of the cervix as part of their midwifery training.

My conversation with Carol Downer was stimulating and inspiring, but it was also poignant. In the third chapter of Sex and Herbs and Birth Control I discuss what John Riddle calls the “broken chain of knowledge” that occurs when the younger generations of women — either through urbanization or “modernization” or perhaps complacency about the progress that women have made — lose interest in the knowledge and traditions of their foremothers. Something similar seems to have happened in recent years. At least in the U.S. most young women know little if anything of the techniques and struggles of the pioneering second-wave feminists who fought for women’s reproductive health in the 1960s and 1970s. All too frequently one encounters the smug attitude that those were the “bad old days”, and things are so much better now. Yet as recent events in Texas, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and elsewhere attest, women’s reproductive rights are under siege. Without a revival of the activist and medical self-help movements that were started by Carol Downer and her associates almost a half-century ago, access to safe, affordable abortion and contraception is likely to become difficult if not impossible for more and more women.

Fond Memories of My Catholic Education


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When I talk with students in my Women as Healers classes about their time in Catholic high school compared to mine forty-five years earlier, we are shocked by how much our experiences diverge. Ironically, it is I rather than they who has the fond memories. In fact, the more I hear their distressing stories of hidebound, doctrinaire priests and nuns, the more I have come to appreciate my own teachers at the Academy of the Holy Angels in northeastern New Jersey, and to marvel at how sophisticated and open-minded they were, in contrast to the religious fundamentalism of many of today’s Catholic school teachers.

My nuns were Sisters of Notre Dame, an order not particularly known for progressive tendencies. Indeed, if the school or the order had had a liberal reputation, my conservative-leaning parents would never have sent me there. But I realize now (much more than I did at the time) that the nuns took a truly catholic (in the best sense of the word) approach to learning. We read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and even Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy (1963). Performances of The Deputy — which portrayed Pope Pius XII as complicitous in the Nazi Holocaust — were being picketed by conservative Catholics, but the play was required reading in my high school English class. Our film study class included Woman in the Dunes, Roshomon, La Dolce Vita, Pather Panchali, and the Soviet classics Mother and Ballad of a Soldier. The religious observances on the first Friday of every month were only sometimes actual Catholic masses. As often as not the service was presided over by clerics of other denominations: Episcopalian and other Protestant ministers, Greek Orthodox priests, Jewish rabbis, Buddhist monks, even on one occasion a Muslim iman.

I attended my all-girls Catholic high school from 1965 to 1969, which was a vibrant time in the history of the Church. My nuns had fully embraced what was often called “the spirit of Vatican II” — the open, tolerant, progressive climate which was encouraged by Pope John XXIII and which continued for several years after his death in 1963. This was a time when many sensitive issues were discussed: female ordination, a possible softening of the Church stance on birth control and even abortion, a “preferential option for the poor” (that is, liberation theology as espoused by the Catholic bishops at the Medellín conference in 1968).

Pope John XXIII in 1959

Pope John XXIII in 1959

I remember once the father of one of my classmates, a gynecologist, was brought in to speak to the seniors. He told us that while he himself as a good Catholic could not prescribe contraceptives for his patients, he had no objection to referring them to colleagues who he knew would fulfill the women’s requests for birth control. His belief that he should not impose his religious convictions on his patients (and our nuns’ tacit approval of his position) stand in stark contrast to the stance of present-day officials of Wheaton College and other evangelical Protestants and Catholics who protest against the contraceptive provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The recent decision of the US Supreme Court granting Wheaton College the right to refuse even to give a referral to a student desiring contraception caused me to recall this Catholic doctor’s visit to our school and to think nostalgically of a time when religious fundamentalism and extremism were much less widespread and influential in the U.S. than they are now.

More Junk Science from the NY Times


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For several decades, as women’s reproductive rights in the United States have come under frequent attack, the New York Times has been a staunch and consistent opponent of attempts to ban or drastically limit access to legal abortion. On 15 April 2014, the Times published an op-ed piece by Thomas B. Edsall titled “Abortion Endures as a Political Tripwire.” The essay expressed support for women’s right to abortion and asked why it is that abortion remains such a hot-button issue while certain other controversies that once seemed explosive — notably, gay marriage — have apparently lost political traction.

Unfortunately, in his efforts to find the answer to this question Edsall settles on an explanation that is peculiar, to say the least. He approvingly quotes two proponents of an evolutionary theory that suggests that vehement opposition to abortion is the inevitable result of (male) human nature. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker and Nebraska political scientist John Hibbing opine that male attempts to limit access to abortion are understandable because, in Edsall’s words, “reproduction is both a core political issue and a core evolutionary one.” In evolutionary terms, males might want to restrict abortion as part of their attempt to, in Pinker’s words, “guarantee paternity, since a cuckolded man is in the worst imaginable evolutionary scenario…”


Edsall appears to have fallen for this bit of pseudoscientific nonsense hook, line, and sinker. Like so many explanations grounded in sociobiology (which proponents now call “evolutionary psychology” in an effort to escape the tarnished reputation of the earlier term), this one fails on historical and cross-cultural grounds.

For one thing, until the 19th century, in most cultures of the world abortion before “quickening” (the first movement of the fetus in the womb at approximately three months gestation) was considered permissible. Indeed, in many places and time periods a woman was not deemed to be pregnant until she announced herself to be so; anything she did before that point to make herself not pregnant (“restore menses” or “restore herself to health” was the way it was often phrased) was her business and hers alone. (I discuss this further in the “A Little Bit Pregnant” chapter of Sex and Herbs and Birth Control.) It is bizarre to categorize current opposition to first-trimester abortion as part of the “evolutionary core” of human actions if this supposed core did not manifest itself in any systematic way until the 19th century.

For another thing, the U.S. is virtually unique in the abortion issue being, as Edsall rightly terms it, a “political tripwire.” Certain parts of the world — such as China, Japan, and most of south and southeast Asia, which together hold about half of the world’s population — have liberal abortion laws and no significant anti-abortion movement. In some places that still have restrictive laws on abortion the laws have been greatly liberalized over the last couple of decades (this is true of Mexico and certain South American countries). In Latin America most opposition to abortion has come from the Catholic Church (which, by the way, did not categorically forbid abortion before quickening until 1869) and Protestant fundamentalist organizations based in the U.S.

It is illogical and unscientific to attribute the strength of the anti-abortion movement in the U.S. to humanity’s “evolutionary core.” Why would evolution apply only to Americans and not to Asians? For all their good intentions, Edsall and the New York Times are doing a disservice by disseminating junk science. (For another example of faulty science related to abortion in the New York Times see the post “Well-Intentioned Junk Science Is Still Junk Science”.) A logical explanation of anti-abortion fanaticism in the U.S. should be based not on biology, but rather on historical, political, and sociological analysis of the peculiarities of American society.

Postscript (added 9 June 2014): After contacting Steven Pinker, my husband Neal learned that his views had not been accurately represented by Mr. Edsall. In Prof. Pinker’s email correspondence with Edsall he had written, “I don’t think there can be an evolutionary explanation of opposition to abortion per se.”

Further postscript (added 4 October 2014): The following quotation from the 2010 book Misframing Men by Michael Kimmel (who is founder and editor of the journal Men and Masculinities) was brought to my attention by Tiffany Lamoreaux:

“Evolutionary psychology is not a natural science, but a social science, which is to say it is an oxymoron. It cannot conform to the canons of a science like physics, in which falsifiability is its chief goal, and replication its chief method. It does not account for variations in its universalizing pronouncements, nor does it offer the most parsimonious explanations. It is speculative theory, often provocative and interesting, but no more than that. It is like–gasp!–sociology. And, as in sociology, there are some practitioners who will do virtually anything to be taken seriously as ‘science,’ despite the fact that individual human beings happily confound all predictions based on aggregate models of behavior.” (page 71)

Agent Orange and Abortion in Vietnam


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Vietnamese fetuses, deformed and stillborn as a result of Agent Orange.

VNM: Dealing With The Leagcy Of Agent Orange In Vietnam

A child at the Ba Vi orphanage, part of the third generation of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and other chemicals used by the U.S. military a half-century ago.

In my book Sex and Herbs and Birth Control I made a glancing reference to the risk of birth defects as a possible reason why women and their partners might decide to abort a fetus. But I did not touch upon the ethical issues surrounding such decisions.

Recently I read Tine Gammeltoft’s Haunting Images: A Cultural Account of Selective Reproduction in Vietnam. Vietnam has an exceedingly high incidence of fetuses with catastrophic abnormalities, a large proportion of which are the legacy of the use of Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. These chemicals are still causing massive congenital defects three generations later. Many of the affected fetuses are stillborn (see illustration). But many abnormalities are detected in utero by the routine 3D and 4D ultrasounds that pregnant women, terrified by the possibility of bringing a malformed infant into the world, feel compelled to undergo. In her book Gammeltoft studies Vietnamese women, their extended families, and their health care providers as they deliberate whether to carry to term a fetus labeled by ultrasound experts as severely abnormal.

Gammeltoft’s interviewees overwhelmingly decide to abort their pregnancies for a complex set of reasons including confidence in the recommendation to abort given them by medical professionals; knowledge of the inability of their government to offer financial support for the disabled (and thus an awareness of the emotional distress and economic hardship the care for such a child would impose upon its entire extended family); and the fear that impaired offspring can never attain full personhood, since in Vietnam personhood is thought to entail responsibilities and reciprocal obligations that the severely handicapped are unable to fulfill. In deciding to abort, the women and their families are taking what they see as the only humane option.

It could also be argued that the Vietnamese women’s decision to abort their damaged fetuses is analogous to the decision of a rape victim to abort her pregnancy. Even in parts of the world with extremely restrictive abortion laws, termination of a pregnancy caused by rape is often legal because the woman in that case is a victim of violence and abuse. Analogously, in the Vietnamese case the woman’s desire to terminate her pregnancy is a result of the chemical bombardment of her family during the War — a form of abuse that is as barbaric as rape.

Interestingly, Vietnamese disability rights advocates do not oppose abortions performed under these circumstances, in part because they see the future of an Agent Orange victim as bleak indeed.

In late 2000, in my capacity as Director of the Kovalevskaia Fund (see, I met with then-Vice President of Vietnam Nguyễn Thị Bình. Outgoing U.S. President Bill Clinton had just visited Vietnam the previous month, and Vice-President Bình talked to me about the problems of the children born with birth defects and about her unsuccessful attempt to persuade President Clinton that the United States should take financial responsibility for those affected by Agent Orange and their families — who were, after all, victims of war crimes committed by the U.S. Without a massive infusion of support for cleanup of the toxic areas and improvement of the health care available for the severely disabled, Vietnamese women will continue to see abortion as their only rational option.

St. Bridget and Abortion


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This semester, students in my Women as Healers class at Arizona State University are reading Sex and Herbs and Birth Control. One young man, Brian Anderson, was so intrigued by the story behind the title of chapter 3, “Praying to St. Bridget,” that he decided to do further research on the saint for his first essay. (The chapter title comes from the St. Bridget amulet that some Irish women wear to protect themselves from pregnancy — see the post “Loss of Indigenous Knowledge in Veracruz, Mexico”.) Brian discovered a fascinating 2002 article by Judith Maas in the Irish Times. Titled “St. Bridget would vote No if faced with this referendum,” the article expressed opposition to a proposed amendment to Ireland’s anti-abortion law that would increase the punishment for anyone obtaining an abortion to twelve years’ imprisonment. The author pointed out that St. Bridget, though an abbess of the Catholic Church and a patron saint of fertility, was willing to help women in desperate circumstances:

“A symbol of motherhood, Bridget is also known as Muire na nGael — Mary of the Gael. However, if necessary, she did not hesitate to interfere with nature. In the first Life of Saint Bridget, written by Cogitatus around AD 650, a woman in crisis pregnancy came to her for help. ‘A certain woman who had taken the vow of chastity fell, through youthful desire and pleasure, and her womb swelled with child. Bridget, exercising with the most strength of her ineffable faith, blessed her, caused the foetus to disappear, without coming to birth, and without pain. She faithfully returned the woman to health and to penance.’ This account of an abortion cannot be found in current translations of the book. In the 19th century it vanished from the official version of St. Bridget’s life….

“In the early Middle Ages, abortion wasn’t considered a serious crime. The Penitential of St. Finnian states that ‘if a woman by her magic destroys the child she has conceived, she shall do penance for half a year.’ This is mild compared to other penalties and compared to the proposed 12 years’ jail in the current proposal for the abortion referendum.” (Irish Times, 5 March 2002)

It is not surprising that when the Church’s stance on abortion changed in the 19th century (see the post “Questions to Ask Your Priest”), the Church also changed the official biography of St. Bridget. Church authorities have consistently attempted to conceal the fact that earlier Catholic notables such as St. Bridget, Hildegarde of Bingen, Tomas Sanchez, and others had more flexible attitudes toward abortion.

Loss of Indigenous Knowledge in Veracruz, Mexico


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Veracruz State Map 775

In a chapter of Sex and Herbs and Birth Control titled “Praying to St. Bridget,” I commented on the numerous reasons why herbal folk knowledge of fertility regulation can become devalued, degraded, or lost over time. The chapter’s title comes from a notable example of this phenomenon: in their efforts to prevent pregnancy, some young Irish women of today wear a St. Bridget’s amulet containing a tiny piece of seaweed. As it happens, several kinds of seaweed, including kelp and sea lettuce, can act as a reasonably effective barrier-type contraceptive, especially if used in conjunction with a spermicide such as lemon juice or a motility reducer such as honey or oil. St. Bridget, a medieval midwife of great renown, probably knew this — in the Middle Ages midwives, even Catholic ones, often knew many folk methods of contraception and abortion. Over time, however, the knowledge of midwives such as St. Bridget was lost, and young Irish women are left with the absurd practice of putting bits of seaweed around their necks and praying to St. Bridget.

There are countless examples of this type. Some are alarming, some are amusing, but all represent an impoverishment of the cultural and ethnobotanical resources available to women of reproductive age. It is particularly distressing that the degradation of knowledge can happen surprisingly quickly, sometimes even in the span of one generation; I give several instances of this in Sex and Herbs and Birth Control.

Recently, Rachel Hughes, a student in my Women as Healers class at Arizona State University, brought to my attention a 2008 article in Economic Botany by Vania Smith-Oka which chronicles the rapid disappearance of knowledge of plants used for reproductive health among indigenous Nahua women of northern Veracruz, Mexico. The author notes several reasons for the precipitous decline in herbal use among Nahua women, including the tendency to have their babies at a clinic or hospital under the care of an allopathic physician rather than at home under the guidance of a midwife; globalization and the consequent identification of western biomedicine as “modern” while Nahua midwifery is stigmatized as backward; and the fact that young women generally do not wish to apprentice with indigenous midwives, but choose instead to go to the cities to take up “more prestigious careers such as accounting or law.”

In many parts of the world indigenous groups employ a mixture of allopathic and folk healing modalities. However, the incursions of Pentacostal religions into northern Veracruz have militated against this type of blending of the old and new. The Pentacostalists have condemned all plants used either in the Nahua pharmacopoeia or in Catholic ritual as sorcery or “of the devil.” As Smith-Oka dryly notes, by these criteria “the list of ‘harmless’ plants is quite short.”

Another factor contributing to the rapid decline of herbal use is the peculiar character of midwifery among these Nahua. Knowledge of herbs that induce sterility, prevent pregnancy, or cause abortion is jealously guarded by individual midwives as proprietary information and kept secret from both patients and rival midwives. This contrasts sharply with many indigeneous communities in Mexico and elsewhere — including ones not far from those studied by Smith-Oka — that have a collective, shared knowledge base. The bottom line is that, once the current generation of midwives in northern Veracruz ceases to practice, their knowledge of contraceptive, sterility-inducing, and abortifacient plants will likely be lost.

Tansy, St. John’s Wort, and Mint—Oh My! Misleading Herbal Advice to Women


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Tansy (from

Tansy (from

On the first day of my Women as Healers class in January 2013 an older student appeared shocked (and slightly scornful) because I did not recognize the name of someone she called “a renowned woman herbalist and healer.” I replied that there are so many women herbalists and healers with a large internet presence that there was no way that I could be familiar with them all. The student insisted that this woman was one of the best and knew enormous amounts of information about herbal remedies and tonics; she would forward the link to me so that I could judge for myself. A couple of days later I followed the link she sent and wandered through the delights of the website. In many ways it was impressive indeed: gorgeous photographs, empowering feminist phrases, and a nice piece on how to recognize early minor stroke signs. There was, however, a glaring red flag that appeared on the first page I perused. Namely, the healer waxed eloquent about the efficacy of “St. Joan’s wort” (known to most people as St. John’s wort or Hypericum perforatum) as a tonic and cure for the winter blues. She did not, however, note any counterindications or caveats in her recommendation.

Now St. John’s wort is a pervasive–and in some areas invasive–species, and so has found its way into the pharmacopoeia of many cultures, most often as a mood regulator or herbal anti-depressant. However–and this is extremely important–it is also known by many peoples as a uterine stimulant, that is, a substance that induces uterine contractions or brings on the menses. Consequently, if the reason why a person is depressed is because she cannot conceive, St. John’s wort is emphatically not a good thing to take. Moreover, the estrogenic properties of St. John’s wort can interfere with the action of modern contraceptives and even certain psychotropics. Yet this in many ways informative website (and countless others of the same ilk) says little or nothing about the possible side effects and dangers of the herbs it recommends.

In my teaching as well as in my research for Sex and Herbs and Birth Control, I have encountered a distressingly large number of similar examples. Some herbalists tout Queen Anne’s lace as a diet drink, though many women from Appalachia to Rajasthan know it as a contraceptive. Some commentators recommend spearmint or pennyroyal or catmint tea as a digestive aid, yet say nothing about the emmenagogic (menses-inducing) properties of many members of the mint family. Tansy (pictured above) is mentioned as an herbal insecticide or natural dyeing agent. But the use of the herb as an abortifacient is passed over in silence, as is the fact that tansy oil–as well as the oils of pennyroyal, juniper/savin, sage, and parsley/apiol, among others–can be lethal if injested.

Part of the problem is that in the U.S., allopathic medical professionals spent much of the 19th and early 20th centuries assiduously distancing themselves from older healing specialties such as herbalism and midwifery. Thus, on the one hand, herbalists rarely have sufficient scientific knowledge of the preparations they recommend to issue adequate warnings. On the other hand, allopathic physicians in the U.S. rarely know enough about naturopathic remedies to give useful advice about side effects of herbs or their possible interactions with other drugs their patients might be taking. An additional problem is that herbal preparations are classified as supplements and are not subject to Food and Drug Administration regulation, so scientific studies of herb-pharmaceutical interactions are pretty much non-existent.

The difficulties caused by this lack of regulation and the ignorance of both herbalists and allopaths in the U.S. do not necessarily arise in other countries. Cubans, for example, in part because of the continued economic embargo by the U.S., have needed to cultivate local herbal alternatives to expensive imported drugs. Modern pharmaceuticals and herbal remedies are combined in Cuban medical practice. Family doctors on the island are expected to be familiar with a whole range of substances they can recommend to their patients, and are thus more likely to be able to give the warnings that I have found conspicuously absent on herbal websites in the U.S.

Sex & Herbs & Birth Control



Bromo Selzer douches, pregnancy protection amulets, pennyroyal teas, birch bark tampons, slippery elm sticks — these are but a few of the myriad methods women in different parts of the world have used in their efforts to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Meanwhile, the obstacles they have had to confront have included religious proscriptions, punitive law codes, persecution of midwives, and the devaluing of folk knowledge.

Sex and Herbs and Birth Control is a lively, provocative account of women’s attempts to provide themselves with as wide a range of reproductive options as possible. A more detailed description of the book and ordering information can be found here.

A review in Feminist Wire can be found here.

“fearlessly female-centric” — Publishers Weekly