Academic journal article Outskirts

The Agnotology of Abortion: A History of Ignorance about Women's Knowledge of Fertility Control

Academic journal article Outskirts

The Agnotology of Abortion: A History of Ignorance about Women's Knowledge of Fertility Control

Article excerpt

Researching abortion in an historical context

Researching the history of abortion means attending to different terms of reference than those meanings of abortion commonly understood today. For us, an abortion is any procedure which terminates a pregnancy from the first day a blastocyst implants itself in the uterus until late in the second trimester of pregnancy. Historically, however, abortion was understood in a much more limited sense: as a termination occurring only in the later stages of pregnancy when a fully developed foetus had quickened, what we would now consider a late-term abortion. It is highly likely that historically women preferred to terminate their pregnancies as early as possible, as women generally do today. Many historical and anthropological studies of the practice of 'abortion' have not been very useful because what they investigate is usually this (historically) atypical form of abortion.

One of the birth control methods women have traditionally relied upon most is menstrual regulation (Browner 1985; Jochle 1974; Low and Newman 1985; Riddle 1997; McLaren 1984; Newman 1985; Ngin 1985). This is the stimulation of one's period before confirmation of pregnancy to ensure a non-pregnant state. Stephania Siedlecky quoting Norman Himes writes:

The use of herbal remedies or physical interference to induce menstrual bleeding or control pregnancy is a practice that has been found in every quarter of the globe dating to prehistoric times. Indeed writers in antiquity recorded centuries of accumulated knowledge of the medicinal qualities of local plants, but this information was already ancient by the time it was written down. (2001, 93)

While menstrual regulation has been used for more than just fertility control, to the extent that it was used for this purpose, we would understand it today as early abortion. However, when we want to speak about the experience of early pregnancy termination in the past, it becomes quite tricky epistemologically. In the days before pregnancy testing, a woman who had missed a period may have suspected that she was pregnant, but there was no way for her to know for sure. Because diagnosis of early pregnancy was always a retrospective diagnosis, only possible after a pregnancy was over, women never experienced a definitively pregnant state that they could be said to be wilfully terminating. Perhaps menstrual regulation was experienced by women historically as a protection against the threat of possible pregnancy, akin to what we would today think of as post-coital contraception. But whereas today we only have a matter of days in which this situation applies, historically women had weeks in which to act. Historically, 'contraception' may have covered a rather broad range of methods which were used up to a month or two following a sexual encounter. As King writes, "since conception was a gradual process taking place over several months ... contraception extended several months into pregnancy" (King 1998, 134).

For any potentially pregnant woman who did not want to be pregnant, a missed period would have been a concern. If she induced her menses in order to avoid pregnancy, then at this point she may have ascertained that she was pregnant, if an embryo was developed enough to be identifiable among the products of conception. She may have understood this as having "induced a miscarriage" (McLaren 1990, 8). But if her pregnancy was so early that the embryo was indiscernible, which would have been more than likely within a month after a missed period, she probably would not have thought of this as any sort of termination at all. She may have thought of this as an "effluxion" (Cressy 1997, 48) or "expulsion" (Schiebinger 2004, 114). If the embryo was visible but highly undeveloped, she may have thought of this as the expulsion of a "mole" or false pregnancy, a "fausse-conception or faux-germe and not really a human creation of any kind" (Schiebinger 2004, 114).

So how are we to conceptualize menstrual regulation today? …

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