abortifacients, abortion, birth control, blue state, contraception, folk traditions, Hawaii, herbal medicine, reproductive rights
For some people, the title of this blog post might conjure up memories of the old Elvis Presley film of that name. “Blue Hawaii” featured gorgeous Hawaiian scenery, implausible shots of Elvis supposedly surfing, and pretty much everyone in the movie routinely mispronouncing the islands’ names as ha-WHY and ka-WHY rather than ha-WHY-ee and ka-WHY-ee.
For my purposes, I am more interested in the sociopolitical meaning of “blue” states as opposed to “red” states in recent U.S. history. Put simply, the blue states are those in which women’s rights, the right to health care, and humane policies are still valued and defended. These are states in which reproductive health rights are not under siege, states whose citizens have successfully resisted gerrymandering that disenfranchises Black voters, states that have not approved any anti-women legislation, such as fetal personhood measures.
Most people are not aware that Hawai`i legalized abortion in advance of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, slightly before New York and California did so. The relatively easy passage of a liberal abortion law in Hawai`i has been attributed to the multi-ethnic, multi-religious composition of the state. The relevant stakeholders, from feminist activists to politicians to physicians to ordinary citizens, appear to have viewed abortion law reform as an affirmation of shared commitment to Hawai`i’s pluralistic society as well as a way to improve women’s reproductive health options. And despite recent efforts by conservative, misogynist zealots, abortion rights are not under threat in blue Hawai`i.
Interestingly, promoters of abortion law liberalization in the early 1970s do not appear to have particularly emphasized indigenous Hawaiian attitudes toward the practice of abortion. This might have been because people living in Hawai`i circa 1970 were not yet experiencing the widespread renaissance of interest in indigenous Hawaiian language and culture that started a decade or so later. Now, however, as stated on the book jacket of the 2022 printing of June Gutmanis’ immensely influential The Secrets and Practice of Hawaiian Herbal Medicine, Hawaiian herbal medicine “is emerging as a popular alternative to traditional [i.e., modern allopathic] medical practices today.”
Gutmanis’ book was first published in 1976 and has been continuously in print since then. At first glance, she seems an unlikely author for such a well-regarded compendium of Hawaiian herbal lore. Born in 1926 in Nebraska, she served as a pilot in World War II. She never got an academic degree but was an avid amateur historian and a founding member of the East Hawai`i Historical Society. She interviewed many kahuna (Hawaiian healers) herself and supplemented her first-person accounts with little-known archival materials.
Gutmanis explains that before European contact Hawaiian youth were expected to experiment sexually from a relatively young age. Girls and young women were taught several methods of herbal contraception, and there was no stigma attached to using them. Couples could use birth control to limit or space out their children, or even to not have children at all if that was their choice; and women who had their children too close together were scorned. To illustrate the acceptability of childlessness in old Hawai`i, Gutmanis quotes Hawaiian folklorist S. M. Kamakau, writing in 1870: “A man and a woman might live together from the time they were young and strong and full of hope until old age approached without having a child or children.” The elders of the community would help the couple prevent pregnancy.
Koa and other tannin-rich leaf tampons are among the pre-coital contraceptives mentioned by Gutmanis’ sources. Parts of the hau tree were also used, though Gutmanis laments that her sources don’t specify the parts used. She speculates that the tree’s bark, which produces a thick, mucus-like sap “may have been used as a spermicide.”
As in most indigenous (and modern) societies about which something is known of contraceptive practices, abortion was also employed for birth control. Indeed, the Hawaiian language has seven words for abortion. Abortifacient plants such as noni (Indian mulberry), hau, and `ohi`a `ai (mountain apple) could be taken orally to induce abortion. An alternative was for the woman to squat over a steam bath infused with parts of the above plants as well as several others. Surgical abortion with a sharp bamboo blade was sometimes used, but, according to Gutmanis’ sources, was more dangerous than the herbal methods.
Sources: June Gutmanis, The Secrets and Practice of Hawaiian Herbal Medicine; Honolulu: Island Heritage, 2013 (2nd edition; 1st edition 1976); Patricia G. Steinhoff and Milton Diamond, Abortion Politics: the Hawaii Experience; Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1977.