A History of Queen Anne’s Lace

In response to the recent action by the State of Texas to ban abortions after six weeks, I reprint this post from May 22, 2019.

Years ago, I was watching an educational TV show during which the narrator discussed plants that were not native to the Americas but which are now common. As an example, the speaker mentioned Queen Anne’s Lace, commenting that the seeds of this non-native plant were inadvertently carried to these shores, hitchhiking in blankets and caught on the clothing of European settlers.

I could not stop laughing at such blatant ignorance. I was well aware that the seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace, taken as a morning-after tea, were the most effective of all the early forms of birth control–at least since silphium was hunted to extinction by Roman and Egyptian women desperate to prevent conception.Queen-Annes-Lace11  The seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace weren’t ferried to the Americas accidentally, hitchhiking on property, but quite purposefully, by women who preferred not to be worn out or die due to too-frequent childbearing.

For centuries, knowledgeable midwives instructed the women they served in the lore of birth control—difficult, and not totally reliable, but not completely impossible in the centuries before the development of the diaphragm and the contraceptive pill. And, yes, their knowledge also included methods of abortion, customarily using herbs. Compounded from celery root and seed, hedge hyssop, cotton root, Cretan dittany and spruce hemlock, mistletoe leaves and horseradish, cinchona bark, ashwagandha and saffron, wooly ragwort, castor oil, blue and black cohosh, evening primrose, and even the remarkably dangerous pennyroyal and tansy and ergot of rye, herbal abortions were common when contraception failed. Though those recipes have been lost to time, the concoctions were so prevalent that ads for patent medicines to cure “delayed menstruation” were common in women’s magazines throughout the 1800s—that is, until the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873  (both written and passed by men, of course) criminalized even the possession of information on birth control.

The world has turned many times since the Comstock Act, through the invention of the contraceptive pill, to the self-help clinics of the late 1960s that instructed women in the practice of menstrual extraction, through Roe vs. Wade. The morning-after and abortion pills were introduced, a chemical solution at last replacing that centuries-old use of abortifacient herbs.

I absolutely do not, will not, debate the wrongness or rightness of any of this, from Queen Anne’s Lace to the present day. To me, decisions regarding birth control and abortion remain always a choice best made by the woman involved, in accordance with her conscience and personal situation. But what struck me most forcefully in reading up on the history of contraception and abortion was that, step by step, women have been conditioned to believe that choosing to control their own reproductive process, even to the decision to prevent conception, was at best immoral, or at worst, criminal.

We think of the Middle Ages as a time of great ignorance, yet it was then that midwives—wisewomen–practiced, sharing their expertise and knowledge with the female population at large, easing the pain of childbirth and preventing many maternal deaths by their skill. And it was then, too, that such women were hunted down, burned and tortured and hung as witches, effectively silencing their knowledge for generations. Women were left in the hands of male doctors who, shrugging, pronounced, “Maternity is eternity”, reconciling countless numbers of women and infants to easily-preventable deaths as babies were delivered in filthy conditions with unwashed hands.

Circle the world a few times on its axis, and enter the 1900s, when horrific deaths by botched back alley abortions were common. Young and desperate women bled to death or died horribly of septicemia. Circle again, and information on contraception was readily available, along with new forms of birth control. Contraceptive creams and condoms were sold over the counter. Legal abortion gave a measure of safety to the procedure. The morning after pill became available for those who had either been careless or experienced the horrors of rape.

History, they say, always repeats itself. And so as society swings perilously close once more to the era of illegal and back alley abortions, so it may also oscillate to women who reclaim the ancient knowledge that gave them power over their own reproductive processes: to the natural methods that provided women a way to make their decisions in accordance with their conscience.

The morality of these decisions is not truly the question, for no matter what is legislated, women will continue to fight for and gain absolute control over their own bodies. They will continue to make their personal choices regarding reproduction. The Pendulum of Queen Anne’s Lace, you might call it. History will, genuinely, always repeat itself.

If you found something to like in this essay, you might also appreciate “MURDER”, the story of my 1985 miscarriage and the vicious accusations hurled several of us at my workplace who were grieving a pregnancy loss. You will find it in the Archives below, from June 19, 2019.

“Murder”

In 1985, I suffered a miscarriage.  My dearly-longed for baby died within me, and my body refused to miscarry the dead fetus.

The technical term for a miscarriage is a spontaneous abortion. A missed abortion is the situation in which the embryo or fetus dies, but the body does not miscarry. The pregnancy appears to continue.

I know this because, in 1985, I suffered a missed abortion. My dearly-longed for baby died within me, and my body refused to discharge the dead fetus. I carried my child dead, knowing it to be dead, for a further three weeks.  My obstetrician insisted it would be healthier if I miscarried naturally. Finally, that not having happened, he intervened with a D&C.

I was at last free to mourn the child who would never be. And my world went to grey and sepia.

Years later,  I had cause to remember those dreadful days of dragging myself into the office every day, carrying my dead child—the anguish; the unutterable grief. It all came rushing back to me one afternoon when a coworker who had also suffered a miscarriage asked to see her personnel file.

A difficult supervisor was making her life miserable, and she decided to take matters in hand by visiting Human Resources and viewing her personnel file. She wanted to know exactly what the supervisor had written about her. Permitted to examine her records in the presence of an HR employee, she sat down to page through the folder.

In those pre-HIPAA days, doctors could write almost anything in a work excuse note; there was no privacy concerning one’s personal medical information. And so, as she sorted through the pages of information and misinformation, she came across the “Please Excuse From Work” note  provided following her miscarriage. Her ob/gyn had written, “Absence due to recovery from a D&C performed following spontaneous abortion”.

But across the word “abortion”, someone had written in bold, black ink, “MURDER”.

She sat there, shocked to her depth and core, holding that bit of paper in a shaking hand, staring at the libelous judgment scrawled across the note.

MURDER.

Still shaking, she turned to the waiting HR employee.  Shoving the note under her nose, she demanded to know what the hell was going on. Why was this…this filthy lie…written on her medical excuse?

“Oh,” Ms. HR said casually, “we thought we’d caught all those.” Without another word, she took a bottle of cover-up, casually dabbed it across the appellation, and handed it back.

Disbelieving; too shaken to dispute and not knowing quite what else to do, my coworker slipped the note back into the file, closed the folder, and left.

Later, as she tearfully described the situation, another staff member clued us in.  Heaven knows where she’d gotten her information, but in this instance the gossip mill seemed trustworthy, for she claimed that an HR employee had been discovered writing the word “Murder” across medical notes and insurance claims for all female employees who had either actually had an abortion, or suffered miscarriages. The employee, apparently ignorant of either the term spontaneous or missed abortion, had assumed the meaning to be the elective procedure. She made her damning judgement, scrawling reprehensible accusations over the reality of the agonizing truth.

Human Resources staff had been forced to dig through mounds of files, finding and correcting all those in which she’d written her libelous remarks.

Obviously, I thought in fury, they hadn’t corrected all of them! For a moment I considered demanding to see my own personnel file, certain that it, too, would either be libeled, or (just as damning) covered in white-out.  But recalling the weeks of my colorless world, the hours of grief and mourning for my unrealized child, I could not bring myself to do it.  I could not look at that word written across the source of my pain.

Thirty-some years later, I still shake with anger as I recall this event.

But the reason I am writing all of this is because, not long ago, I read a news story  about a young woman enduring the agony of a non-viable pregnancy–an agony that I so well understood. The woman had been denied a medication prescribed by her doctor, one that would cause her body to begin naturally miscarrying the dead fetus. A pharmacist had refused to fill the prescription. Shaming and judging her, he claimed that she was trying to abort a living child, and denied her the medication.  To obtain the prescription that would end her pregnancy with a dead child and circumvent a surgical procedure, she was forced to drive for hours from that rural pharmacy to another town.

For just a moment, time reversed its flight, and I stood with that young woman in her grief, her anguish and misery, and, most of all, her innocence in the face of the most terrible of all accusations by someone self-righteous and wrathful.

MURDER.

I experienced every minute of her suffering as if it were my own. And, just as I had once consigned that smug, sanctimonious, faceless HR employee to the uttermost depths of hades, I now wished the same fate upon this unknown, censorious pharmacist.

I know that we are to judge not.  And I do not even believe in hell.  Yet sometimes, remembering, I find myself hoping that they both, the self-righteous HR employee and the contemptuous pharmacist, will find there is a special corner of a Very Hot Place reserved just for them.

A History of Queen Anne’s Lace

What struck me most forcefully in reading up on the history of contraception and abortion was that, step by step, women have been conditioned to believe that choosing to control their own reproductive process, even to the decision to prevent conception, was at best immoral, or at worst, criminal.

Years ago, I was watching an educational TV show, and the narrator discussed plants that were not native to the Americas but which were now common. As an example, the script mentioned Queen Anne’s Lace, stating that the seeds were carried to the Americas caught in blankets and clothing of the European settlers.

I could not stop laughing. I was well aware that the seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace, taken as a morning-after tea, were the most effective of all the early forms of birth control–at least since silphium was hunted to extinction by Roman and Egyptian women desperate to prevent conception. The seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace weren’t ferried to the Americas accidentally, hitchhiking on property, but quite purposefully, by women who preferred not to be worn out or die due to too-frequent childbearing.

For centuries, knowledgeable midwives instructed the women they served in the lore of birth control—difficult, and not totally reliable, but not completely impossible in the centuries before the development of the diaphragm and the contraceptive pill. And, yes, their knowledge also included methods of abortion, customarily using herbs. Compounded from celery root and seed, hedge hyssop, cotton root, Cretan dittany and spruce hemlock, mistletoe leaves and horseradish, cinchona bark, ashwagandha and saffron, wooly ragwort, castor oil, blue and black cohosh, evening primrose, and even the remarkably dangerous pennyroyal and tansy and ergot of rye, herbal abortions were common when contraception failed.  The concoctions were so prevalent that ads for patent medicines to cure “delayed menstruation” were common in women’s magazines throughout the 1800s—that is, until the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873 criminalized even the possession of information on birth control.

The world has turned many times since the Comstock Act, through the invention of the contraceptive pill, to the self-help clinics of the late 1960s that instructed women in the practice of menstrual extraction, through Roe vs. Wade. The morning-after pill was introduced, a chemical solution at last replacing that centuries-old use of abortifacient herbs.

I absolutely do not, will not, debate the wrongness or rightness of any of this, from Queen Anne’s Lace to the present day. To me, decisions regarding birth control and abortion remain always a choice best made by the woman involved, in accordance with her conscience and personal situation. But what struck me most forcefully in reading up on the history of contraception and abortion was that, step by step, women have been conditioned to believe that choosing to control their own reproductive process, even to the decision to prevent conception, was at best immoral, or at worst, criminal.

We think of the Middle Ages as a time of great ignorance, yet it was then that midwives—wisewomen–practiced, sharing their expertise and knowledge with the female population at large, easing the pain of childbirth and preventing many maternal deaths by their skill. And it was then, too, that such women were hunted down, burned and tortured and hung as witches, effectively silencing their knowledge for generations. Women were left in the hands of male doctors who, shrugging, pronounced, “Maternity is eternity”, reconciling countless numbers of women and infants to death as babies were delivered in filthy conditions with unwashed hands.

Circle the world a few times on its axis, and enter the 1900s, when horrific deaths by botched back alley abortions were common. Young and desperate women bled to death or died horribly of septicemia. Circle again, and information on contraception was readily available, along with new forms of birth control. Contraceptive creams and condoms were sold over the counter. Legal abortion gave a measure of safety to the procedure. The morning after pill became available for those who had either been careless or experienced the horrors of rape.

History, they say, always repeats itself. And so as society swings perilously close once more to the era of illegal and back alley abortions, so it may also oscillate to women who reclaim the ancient knowledge that gave them power over their own reproductive processes: to the natural methods that provided women a way to make their decisions in accordance with their conscience.

The morality of these decisions is not truly the question, for no matter what is legislated, women will continue to fight for and gain absolute control over their own bodies.  They will continue to make their personal choices regarding reproduction. The Pendulum of Queen Anne’s Lace, you might call it. History will, genuinely, always repeat itself.