Nora E. Jaffary: Ancient Abortifacients in Modern Mexico

Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico: Childbirth and Contraception from 1750 to 1905, by Norah E. Jaffary, cover imageWe welcome a guest post today from Nora E. Jaffary, author of Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico: Childbirth and Contraception from 1750 to 1905. In this history of childbirth and contraception in Mexico, Jaffary chronicles colonial and nineteenth-century beliefs and practices surrounding conception, pregnancy and its prevention, and birth. Tracking Mexico’s transition from colony to nation, Jaffary demonstrates the central role of reproduction in ideas about female sexuality and virtue, the development of modern Mexico, and the growth of modern medicine in the Latin American context.

In the following post, Jaffary describes the history of medical abortion in Mexico and compares this practice to modern ideas and debates about abortion.


Abortion is back in the news. Donald Trump told us this past spring that he believes women who had abortions in the United States should be “punished,” and the Supreme Court ruled in late June against the constitutionality of Texas’ restrictive abortion law, HB2. This legislation (brilliantly satirized by comedian Samantha Bee severely limits access to abortion by requiring costly building upgrades for all clinics providing abortions to meet surgical-grade standards, even when the services they provide entail administering medical abortions, which induce miscarriage through oral medications rather than through surgical procedures.

That the Texas legislature was able to pass HB2 is partly because of the extent to which both sides of the current abortion debate in the United States and elsewhere have oriented themselves around the relatively recent phenomenon of surgical abortion. Pro-Choice advocates point to the potentially fatal health risks run by women who are forced, when abortion is prohibited rather than regulated, to seek “back alley” abortions. Unsafe surgical abortions are symbolized on the traditional pro-choice emblem: a coat hanger. The Anti-Abortion campaign also focuses on the imagery of surgical abortion in its political and visual rhetoric, presenting images of the bloody butchery of innocent babies that its campaign associates with the act of surgical abortion. But in much of the world and in much of history, abortion has taken a medical rather than surgical form.

I spent the past decade in various archives researching the history of childbirth and contraception in colonial and nineteenth-century Mexico and I found some surprising things.

One of the things that surprised me the most was that throughout the colonial period and up until as late as the 1860s, neither community members nor judicial authorities in Mexico seemed particularly troubled that women were procuring abortions. In my search of five central archives in Mexico City, Puebla, Tlaxcala, and Oaxaca, I found a total of only twelve denunciations for the crime to either criminal courts or the court of the Holy Office of the Inquisition over the three-hundred-year period following the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521.

I also learned that Mexican midwives’ knowledge of effective abortifacients—substances ingested to provoke miscarriage—was both extensive and ancient. The mid-sixteenth-century Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún, often considered Mexico’s earliest ethnographer, recorded that his informants described various medicinal substances pre-Columbian midwives used to stimulate menstruation, to induce labor or, administered in higher doses earlier in pregnancies, to provoke miscarriages. These included tlilxochitl (vanilla bean) mixed with mecaxochitl (a pepper plant) and tlaquatzin (the dried tail of an opossum ground into a powder and believed to have powerful expulsive properties).

Sixteenth-century physician and naturalist Francisco Hernández recorded that the cooked leaves of tlapechmecatl or the application of yahuatli (marigold) “provoked abortion,” which was especially important for expelling nonviable fetuses. The most widely recorded, and apparently highly efficient, labor accelerator was cihuapatli (the aster flower), which was given in a drink after a temazcal bath.

I also discovered that midwives continued to circulate their knowledge about pre-Columbian abortifacients among women throughout the colonial period and the nineteenth century. For example, according to one tract the prolific scientific writer Antonio León y Gama composed in 1795, “all the uterine illnesses that women suffer from find efficient remedy in the multitude of herbs known by the generic name of cihuapatli, or medicine of women.” He also commented that even so ubiquitous a substance as pulque could be used “to provoke the menses in women.” I found reference to this medicine, effectively administered by midwives to provoke early abortions in Mexican women in dozens of seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century medical texts, inquisition trials, and criminal records.

I was surprised, too, to learn that when women were in fact denounced, judicial authorities rarely determined sufficient evidence existed to convict or otherwise punish such women for the crime. Unlike in our own day, most people who lived in colonial and nineteenth-century Mexico apparently assumed that what women chose to do, when they found themselves impregnated with a child they did not or could not care for, was none of their business.

Nora E. Jaffary is associate professor of history at Concordia University in Montreal. Reproduction and Its Discontents in Mexico: Childbirth and Contraception from 1750 to 1905, is now available from UNC Press.