Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

Maintaining Reproductive Freedom in an Era of Repressive Politics

An essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup

"There is a difference between a fetus that cannot survive on its own, and an autonomous human being. I find the pro-choice, anti-death penalty positions consistent because both support the value of the individual, and both oppose the state's power over the individual--whether to make decisions about our reproductive lives, or the length of our lives."
--Gloria Steinem quoted in

"Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme..."

If you're like me, you listened to the words of that Simon and Garfunkel song, popular in my youth, and wondered what the herbs had to do with traveling to a fair.

How naive I was. I had no idea in those days what wisdom those lyrics were hiding, right there in open view. As a committed Mormon at the time, I would have been not only surprised, but even shocked to find out.

The lyrics of that song were hiding a secret wisdom: There are herbal alternatives to pharmaceuticals such as "the pill" and RU-486 for both contraception and induced abortion. "Scarborough fair" was a code phrase for making love. And parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are the ingredients in a traditional herbal contraceptive, which was, by all accounts, quite effective.

Not only do these herbal alternatives exist, but women knew about them centuries ago, and carefully passed the knowledge on discretely from mother to daughter. The knowledge of these alternatives has been suppressed in the last two centuries, mostly by men, who, for their own reasons, wished to control the reproductive health and freedom of women.

To understand how this came about, you need to know a little bit about how pregnancy and reproduction was viewed in earlier times.

When does life begin?

The assumption that life begins at conception is a very modern notion. It began with the rise of fundamentalist Christianity at the end of the 19th century. Prior to this time, a woman "decided" when she was pregnant, and wasn't legally pregnant until she declared herself to be so. Due to the widespread nature of diseases, many of which would disrupt a woman's menstrual cycle, a woman couldn't rely on a lapse in menstruation to know that she was pregnant. Indeed, most menstrual disruptions were indications of disease. Rather, the first reliable indication that she was pregnant came with the first kick of the fetus in the womb. The fetus was "quickened," and the woman was pregnant. She would then spread the word, and from that point on, she was legally pregnant.

Until the woman felt the "quickening," however, what she did with her body was her business. If she wished to use herbal preparations to restore her health, that was her business, and she had every right to do it. Since the loss of menstruation was simply presumed to be the evidence of a disease process, it was not considered suspicious should she choose to use herbal preparations to restore her menstruation. Hence she was allowed the opportunity to do so.

Use of Herbal Contraceptives

Use of a pre-coital douche was not unusual, since hygene was poor, and a woman often would use a douche on herself to 'sweeten' things up a bit prior to making love. What she often didn't tell her partner, however, was that the douche was actually intended as much to prevent conception as it was to enhance the experience. Women knew from traditional wisdom how to prepare these contraceptive douches, and they would use them to control the size of the families, often, if not usually, without the knowledge and consent of their husbands. Other contraceptives, for women who were sexually active but wished to prevent pregnancy, took the form of herbal teas, often consumed ritually.

How effective were these preparations? In ancient times, at least one species of plant was so sought out that it was driven into extinction. These preparations were effective enough that it was not uncommon for populations to actually decline for reasons other than disease and famine. By the 16th century, the church had become aware of these preparations, and the fact that they were preventing the creation of lots of little Catholics, sought to ban them. Thus began in the West the long history of suppression of this knowledge, and leading to it's nearly dying out.

Emmenagogues and Abortifacients

Of course, in spite of their general effectiveness, occasionally such contraceptives either weren't used or failed to prevent conception. But women were not without options. First was the use of an "emmenagogue," an agent that would prevent the implantation of the embryo into the uterine wall. There was a vast array of herbal preparations that served as emmenagogues, and many, if not most women knew how to prepare and use them. Long before modern women dreamed of a "morning after" pill, women were using herbal preparations for just that purpose. And of course, should all else fail, an abortifacient could be prepared and used to expel a small fetus. Again, a wide variety of herbal preparations were available to women for this purpose.

Of all the emmenagogues and abortifacients that were used, the most cherished by many women was European pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium. This herb (whose essential oil is dangerously toxic and should never be used internally), and its American relative, American pennyroyal, Hedeoma pulegoides was usually effective when properly prepared as a tea and carefully used, often in combination with blue cohosh, Caulophyllum thalictroides. The blue cohosh causes a flushing of the uterine wall (though use of a tincture can capture the herb's uterine-contractive effects as well), and the pennyroyal causes uterine contractions. Pennyroyal was so effective, especially in combination with blue cohosh, that eradication campaigns by the church were even conducted against it from time to time.

Contraceptives For Both Men And Women

The range of options available to women is quite large, when herbal preparations are considered. Not only contraceptives, but the long-sought "morning after" solution is available as well, in the form of a wide range of emmenagogues.

It is not just women who can benefit from this knowledge. There is at least one effective contraceptive for men, the neem tree of India, Azadiractha indica, which is effective in reversibly suppressing sperm viability in men, without affecting potency. Men who do not wish to father children don't have to wait for the pharmaceutical industry to catch up to nature.

Why the Opposition?

The reason that the fundamentalist right has always opposed reproductive freedom is, of course, that it removes from them the control to which they feel entitled. As has been often observed, the one thing conservatives hate worse than anything is not being in control. So when women decide for themselves whether they shall become or remain pregnant, the fundamentalist views that loss of control as an insult and a rebellion, and won't tolerate it.

The excuse used, at least nowadays, is that "life begins at conception." its interesting that nowhere in the Bible is a scripture that makes such a claim. There isn't even an indirect reference to it, because the notion of conception as the fusion of sperm and egg cells had no meaning to the ancients, who didn't know what cells even were, and were quite unaware of "eggs" as a concept applying to humans. To the ancients, indeed right up into the modern era, life didn't begin until the "quickening." That's what that word originally meant.

What's really frightening here is that people have begun to accept the concept which the fundamentalists have recently promoted that a zygote (a fused sperm and egg cell) is a child. Such a notion is preposterous. As recent cloning research has made very clear, a zygote is no different than any other cell in the body, except for the proteins and hormones that surround and infuse it, and it is no more capable of self awareness or independent life than a cell in the pancreas or an intestine. Yet, as Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebels once observed, a lie repeated often enough is eventually believed. So the lying goes on, and people have begun to believe. Therefore, there seems to be an increasing assumption in the current Rowe vs. Wade debate and the new debate on RU486, that a zygote really is a child. The reason, of course, that the fundamentalists promote this lie is that by making a zygote into a child, is that it brings that zygote under the moral, if not legal protections enjoyed by children.

That leads to a problem. When public policy is based on lies, bad laws are the result. There is a very good probability that Rowe vs. Wade, the bedrock Supreme Court decision defending women's reproductive rights, will be abolished by legislative fiat in the near future, and mostly because of a lie often believed.

Rowe vs. Wade

No discussion of abortion and women's reproductive rights would be complete without at least a brief mention of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Rowe vs. Wade which abolished blanket bans on abortion in the United States in 1973. As a court decision, it is subject to being overturned by legislation, or by the court itself in a future decision.

The justices who wrote the Rowe vs. Wade decision were well aware of the fact that women had once had the right to reproductive freedom as we have discussed in this essay.

When they wrote their landmark decision, they indicated, and quite rightly, that they were doing nothing new. All they were doing, they said, was reinstating English common law to the state it had once been, and had been since time immemorial.

What they wrote was true. Women had once had an unlimited right to control their reproductive activities, at least during the first trimester. The standard that the justices applied was that life begins at viability - the point at which the fetus becomes viable outside the womb.

Others have held that the standard should be when consciousness first becomes possible. We know that it is not possible for consciousness to occur in the absence of brain waves, and these arise at about the beginning of the third trimester - roughly the same point at which the fetus becomes viable. So there is really no conflict between the standards. Until that point arrives, there is no question that the fetus is not a child. It is simply a mass of tissue that has the potential to become a child.

Conservative Religion and Women's Rights

I've never been one to shrink from an intellectual fight. So I won't hesitate to say that it has been my experience that the real enemy of women's rights around the world has traditionally been conservative patriarchialist religion. In the West, of course, that takes the form of the fundamentalist streaks of Christianity.

What I find interesting is that even though these same people claim that all things are created by God, including the very herbs that are used for these purposes. Perhaps their god created these herbs with their unique properties for this purpose? One never hears, of course, this idea being postulated by these people. Yet the question begs to be asked - if God created these herbs, and God is all knowing, surely he knew what they could be used for. Why then did he proceed to create them with these properties as they claim he did?

Not that fundamentalist Christians are the sole guilty parties here. Conservative Islam also is guilty of the suppression of this knowledge, as are many other religions, including Hinduism, some forms of Buddhism, many Animist traditions, etc. Forcing women into purdah, the forced genital mutilation of women in Africa and elsewhere, the restriction on the education of women in India and the Middle East, all are symptoms of conservative religion forcing its domination onto women.

The common thread in all of these conservative religions is patriarchy. It is the desire of the proponents to subordinate women to the men in the culture. Doing so, of course, inevitably means a circumscription of the same rights to self determination that men of these cultures tend to consider their natural right. Seldom do they see the inconsistency in that position.

Maybe its time to end legally sanctioned patriarchy, like we've ended legally sanctioned slavery. In the West, we've made a few halting steps in that direction. Let us work to see that trend continue.

Internet Resources:

I have found one really good web site dealing with this issue. It not only discusses the herbs and their uses in detail, but has a lot of background on what options are available to women, not only herbal, but pharmaceutical and others as well. Due to the volume of hate mail I receive, the webmaster has asked me not to put a link to it here, but I will be glad to pass the URL on to you if you will write me.


There are two really good books on this topic, which unfortunately, are not widely enough known. Even if you do not want or need them for yourself, do the world a favor - before the fundamentalists can suppress this knowledge any more than they have, buy a copy of each, donate them to your local library, and help women gain and retain control over their lives:

Eve's Herbs by John Riddle is not only comprehensive, it is well documented and uses material both ancient and modern. Its an excellent read besides being an invaluable resource.

A Woman's Book of Choices: Abortion, Menstrual Extraction, Ru-486 by Rebecca Chalker and Carol Downer is one of the best books around for explaining a woman's choices, both herbal and pharmaceutical.

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Copyright © 2000, Scott Bidstrup.
Revised 9/29/2000