The Rise and Demise of Patent Medicine Abortifacients and their Influence on the Agency of Victorian Women

01st June 2008

Noel Sprenger

BA(Hons), School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, October 2007

Details of abortifacient patent medicines and a study of the social history of their use by women to terminate unwanted pregnancies during the Victorian era are presented. Many commentators have theorised as to causes for the decrease in births throughout the Western world from the mid-nineteenth century and consideration must be given to factors such as the economy, growing secularism, the rise in feminism and the use of contraceptive methods. However, little attention has been given to patented chemical abortifacients as one of these causal factors and it is contended that the rise of patent medicines in the ‘golden age’ (1865–1907) matched the fall in the birth rate and was, in part, responsible for this decline. The story that unfolds is complex. Its primary focus lies in ascertaining the effects of abortifacients on the agency of Victorian women. Pregnancy and birth, the realm of female healers and midwives throughout history had become a subject of public accountability, and the body of a woman (a permissible topic in polite conversation only in terms of nurturing) was subjected to medical and state intervention. While juridical authorities commenced the task of the management of pregnancy by the introduction of laws making abortion illegal, irrespective of the considerations of women, an orchestrated campaign by the male-dominated medical profession insured that doctors successfully replaced midwives in pre- and post-natal matters. This disruption to female networks previously used to disseminate knowledge of tried and tested chemical abortifacients to terminate unwanted pregnancies should have resulted in the loss of reproductive control for Victorian women, but apparently this did not occur. The manufacturers of patent medicines intervened to provide a range of abortifacient products of varying toxicity and result. The demise of patent medicines, including abortifacients, early in the twentieth century, through the demonstrated power of white, Anglo-Saxon males in the law-making and medical professions, evidently resulted in a reduction in women’s reproductive options. For archaeology, the presence of abortifacient containers, as a component of assemblages in Victorian-era sites, can provide significant insights into life (or death) choices of individuals from that period, as well as a good indication of the dating of historical archaeological sites.

Noel Sprenger
The Rise and Demise of Patent Medicine Abortifacients and their Influence on the Agency of Victorian Women
June 2008
66
85
Thesis Abstracts
You must be a member to download the attachment ( Login / Sign up )