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An Abortifacient is a substance that induces abortion or premature birth. If there is a risk that a substance may be an abortifacient, it is typically advised not to be taken during pregnancy, and some abortifactients may be very dangerous to the life of both mother and unborn child.

The term abortifacient appears to have come into use in the mid to late 19th century, although the use of herbs as abortifacients is ancient. The practice has been hugely controversial at various times in history. Aloes, Savine (Juniperus sabinae) and Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) were described as "Reflex Abortifacients" by the 1871 "Journal of the Gynaecological Society of Boston, Volume 5" and were considered dangerous. That work defined the term as follows: "Reflex abortifacients, which act as abortifacients by reflex irritation from a (usually) contiguous organ, embrace all those agents, which, by irritation of the pelvic viscera, stomach, or intestines, or by a toxical effect upon the system, induce changes in the circulation or innervation of the womb, and render it untenable of its foetal contents." [1]

Abortifacients have at certain times and places been illegal - for example Illinois, USA in the late 19th century. [2] In England, abortion was made illegal in 1803. Abortifacients (not necessarily safe or effective) used by women in England in the 19th century included diachylon, savin, ergot of rye, pennyroyal, slippery elm, rue, squills, and hiera picra. [3]

Further herbs / substances which have been claimed by herbalists to act as abortifacients if taken in certain doses or mixtures include brewer's yeast, vitamin C, bitter melon, wild carrot, blue cohosh, nutmeg, mugwort, papaya latex, vervain and saffron. [3]

In the ancient Greek colony of Cyrene, Silphium (also known as silphion or laser) was considered a powerful abortifacient. The plant became extinct, and one of the possible causes suggested was overharvesting. [3]

In post-mediaeval times, women who dispensed abortifacient herbs were considered witches by the Catholic church and persecuted. [3]

Muslim scholars are reported to have considered use of abortifacients acceptable as long as abortion occured within the first 120 days of conception, as this was believed to be the point at which the foetus is considered to become fully human and receive its soul. [3]

Note - This page is not medical advice.

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