Contraception In Ancient Times: Use of Morning-After Pill

Contraception In The Ancient World

| May/June 2000

Editor’s note: This article is a historical overview, and the information provided is not intended for self-treatment. The herbs discussed may be toxic. Please do not try them yourself. 

A 2,500-year-old Cyrenian coin bears a puzzling image. A regal woman sits on a chair, touching a plant with one hand. Her other hand points to her genitals. To the uninitiated, the meaning of the picture might range from the ­unfathomable to the slightly kinky. To the ancient peoples who circulated this coin in their daily commerce, the images were crystal clear. The plant, called silphion by the Greeks and silphium by the Romans, was one of the most valuable in the ancient world; it was an herbal morning-after pill, readily available to our ancestors a hundred generations ago.

Fact or Legend?

Myths, legends, hearsay, and ancient texts are not the only evidence that people were regulating births in the ancient world. Historical demographic studies ­indicate that during the first five centuries a.d.—a period of few wars or major ­epidemics—the population of the Roman Empire declined, while at the same time life expectancy increased. Attempts to ­attribute the decline to infanticide have not been supported by skeletal evidence, which shows fewer children being born to each woman.

Were the herbal contraceptives and early term abortifacients responsible? For centuries historians paid little attention to ancient accounts of plants possessing birth-control properties, referring to them as “ineffectual potions.” Modern laboratory analyses, however, suggest that the plants used in these potions were effective and that ancient women probably had more control over their reproductive lives than previously thought.

What the Research Shows:

Silphium, which is now extinct, cannot be tested. But experiments using crude extracts of a widely used substitute and silphium relative asafoetida, showed that it ­inhibited implantation of fertilized ova in rats at rates of up to 50 percent. Extracts of asafoetida’s close relatives were nearly 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy when given within three days of mating.

Studies on other historically cited contraceptive herbs have produced similar ­results. In 1986, research showed that compounds in Queen Anne’s lace blocked the production of progesterone, which is necessary to prepare the uterus for a ­fertilized ovum. According to historian John M. Riddle in his book Eve’s Herbs (Harvard University, 1997), women in both rural North Carolina and Rajasthan, India, use the seeds to prevent pregnancy.

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