Pennyroyal is not a hanger: Expanding our vision of reproductive justice


Never has my commitment to feminism been questioned so fiercely, as when I publicly came out as someone who supports and practices herbal abortions and herbal birth control.

I’ve been learning about herbs, harvesting and growing medicine for most of my adult life. As my love for the plant world grew I discovered a deep pull towards rediscovering the wisdom of my ancestors. I decided to dedicate my learning to the history and spiritual practices of celtic and germanic women, femmes and witches.

It is impossible to learn these histories without understanding the fundamental role that abortion and reproductive autonomy played in the persecution of these witches, healers and wise women.

In essence midwives, herbalists, healers – anyone who held knowledge of the plant world and the womb – could use that knowledge to help people control their fertility. This medicine was passed down by grandmothers and aunties, brewed into teas and potions and whispered over with spells and prayers.

Knowledge of fertility cycles and how to effect them with herbs was central to the power struggle that sparked witch burnings around the world. During the rise of capitalism, the church, state and the owners of industry benefited from populations that were large and poor. They didn’t want people terminating or preventing pregnancies because that decreased the numbers of much needed workers, followers and taxpayers. We see the ideologies that bolstered the witch burnings alive and well today in ongoing battles against reproductive freedom and autonomy. These battles affect anyone with fertility but clearly have harsher impacts for women of colour, poor women, sex workers, and people with uteruses who don’t identify as women.

As I began to learn more about the witches whose ashes bolster my bones, I came to see that using plants to effect fertility is fundamentally a feminist practice. For me, feminism is about seeking justice, particularly justice against oppression that is linked to gender based violence. I believe in a complex and rich feminism that fights back against oppression in all its forms.

I believe that feminism is about freedom, autonomy and solidarity. And I believe that effective feminism must be informed by history.

We need to understand both the context and the wisdom of our ancestors and our work must be informed by that knowledge in order for it to be effective and grounded.

So to me, my interest in herbal contraception seems to walk sweetly, hand-in-hand with my feminism. And yet, this is not how many feminists feel.

Many feminists immediately rail against the idea of herbal abortions or contraception.

We left those behind with the hangers!”
“You are hurting women!”
“Abortion is perfectly legal here, why wouldn’t you just do it in a clinic where it’s safe?”

Yes, when abortions are made illegal people inevitably seek out dangerous forms of abortion such as unsafe abortions provided by organized crime, throwing themselves down stairs, using poison or hangers and YES, even unsafe herbal abortions.

What I want people to understand is that poorly performed herbal abortions happen because pregnant people feel desperate, unsupported and disconnected from ancient knowledge traditions that would allow them to safely abort or prevent pregnancy, if they had the skills.

Is herbal abortion a totally safe practice when you have the skills and knowledge?

No.

Everything comes with risks, including medical abortion. And chances of harm are greatly reduced when accurate and clear knowledge is shared within supportive, safe and open communities.

People will use hangers for abortions when they have no other options. And they are also more likely to take a dangerously high dose of herbs, or use deadly essential oils instead of safer teas or tinctures, when they feel unsupported and terrorized.

Demonizing abortions and abortion providers keeps everyone underground and makes everyone more unsafe. This is true whether we are talking about medical or herbal providers.

Many feminists have come to understand herbal abortions and contraception as being associated with a lack of options, rather than with an abundance of options which lead to informed and empowered choices on the part of the pregnant or fertile person. Herbal abortions are demonized as a means of justifying the legalization and institutionalization of medical abortion in clinical settings. This demonization leaves all of us with fewer options for how we may choose to end or prevent pregnancy.

Demonizing herbal abortion creates less autonomy for fertile people, not more.

The stigma and fear mongering around abortion and contraceptive care, especially with regards to alternative, herbal or holistic options, severely limits the options that are available to pregnant and fertile people.

For example someone I know went for an abortion in a large urban Canadian hospital. She was told by the counsellor who worked there, a person everyone who is having an abortion must talk to, that there has never been a successful herbal abortion.

Ever… in the whole history of time.

This would be laughable if it weren’t deeply scary in its inaccuracy. In reality there have been far more herbal abortions than there have been medical or surgical abortions, because medical and surgical abortions are a fairly recent phenomenon when compared to the thousands of years humans have been practicing herbal contraception and abortion.

What I have observed in all my learning about herbal abortions and contraception, and abortion care in general, is that mainstream feminist narratives about abortion keep herbal options marginalized and stigmatized.

In an issue as tenuous and ongoing as the abortion debate, the feeling is that there is no room for complexity. You either support legal access to medical abortion or you are not pro-choice. You either support legal medical abortion care, or you are not a feminist. This is the pressure being applied by the mainstream feminist movement. This pressure exists because the stakes are so high and the power struggle is so ancient. There is no room for debate. No possibility of a wide range of experiences and priorities.

Also, colonization and racism impact the abortion debate in fundamental ways. One of the main tools of colonization is the imposition of notions of “progress”, and the dismissal of ancient systems of knowledge as “backwards” or mythical. Knowledge of plants and the natural world, traditional indigenous midwifery and reproductive and sexual autonomy, are fierce battle grounds for the colonial project. Because of the dominance of colonial ways of thinking we’ve come to see traditional ancestral knowledge systems as flawed and backwards. Everyone who lives under the power of colonial nation states swallows these ideas, to some extent. And I believe we can see these ideas clearly being applied, when feminists talk about things like herbal abortion and birth control.

It’s important to understand and remember that indigenous women and people who experienced slavery used herbs like cottonroot and black cohosh to control their fertility, both ancestrally, but also as a means of preventing pregnancies that resulted from rape, which was and is a primary tool of colonial and racial violence.

This powerful resistance history must be kept in mind when we consider whether herbal abortion is a feminist practice.

Even so, mainstream feminists ask “why would you choose to use herbs when we’ve made so much progress?”

But where are we making progress to when we are erasing and dismissing the knowledge of our ancestors? Whose freedom are we supporting when we create and propagate narrow minded ideas about what reproductive freedoms looks like and who it supports?

I believe in feminism that supports a wide range of reproductive justice and autonomy. Rich feminism that hangs out in the gray, rather than in a world that is simply black and white. I hope that one person’s choice to access medical abortion can be honoured just as fiercely as someone’s choice to have kids. Or someone else’s choice to abort using herbs. Or someone else’s undeniable right to not be sterilized unless it is there un-coerced decision to do so.

We all deserve the utmost support and respect for making whatever choices makes the most sense for our bodies. To me, that is what being “pro-choice” is really all about.

if you are interested in learning more about herbal contraception i offer pay-what-you-can educational posters on herbal birth control and herbal abortion, as well as one-on-one care where you can access personalized support to help you create a herbal contraception plan that supports your body’s needs.

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6 comments

  1. anemonerosie says:

    This was my entryway into herbalism. I was entirely unsupported, and remain so (despite the fact that a few people in my friend’s group have used herbal abortifactants successfully).
    The lack of support causes me to feel isolated and alienated, and to not maintain my interest despite the fact that reproductive justice is my birthright (it was the primary darling of both my ‘women’s libber’ grandmother, and my feminist mother).

    I don’t want for you to feel unsupported in posting this. It really resonates with me, and yet I have nothing to offer.

  2. Tamarack Verrall says:

    Thank you so much Andi for this information and for raising this issue. We are taught almost nothing about the torture and murder of women, the burning of witches led by the Christian Church. It is skipped over as if it never happened and we glean information from courageous writers such as you. Here you have hit the nail squarely on the head. I had always known that witches (herb gatherers) had threatened the church and that in particular, single women (not owned by a man) devoted to herb gathering (medicine) were the focus of the attack, leading to any woman who spoke out being attacked. I vaguely knew that part of the plan was for men to take over medicine. In all these years I had never put it together that witches offered herbal ways for women to have control over our own bodies. So thank you, and thank you and the writer above for keeping herbal knowledge known. It is a huge responsibility, offering medicinal knowledge and Pharma and conventional medicine want to own the business. Medicine that is in conventional pill form is from plants. People who practise medicine in any way without enough knowledge need to be stopped, but those who know the herbs need to be protected. This should not be seen as either/or within the women’s movement. We need the right to choose.

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