Growing up Catholic, I knew theologically that my church forbade abortion and contraception. Although the church’s stand on abortion was self-evident in my opinion, I didn’t really understand why she took such a hard line on contraception until I found myself judging annulment cases on a Catholic marriage tribunal. With few exceptions, I could trace every marital breakdown to the couple saying “no” to the fertility with which God had blessed them.

Shocked, I began to research the history of abortion and contraception in my spare time. I was interested, both as a canon lawyer and a pro-family journalist, in discovering how modern society had fallen for such a grand lie. Yet, the deeper I researched, the darker were the conclusions.

Contraception and abortion were nothing new. Rather, they were old lies that were often tied to sorcery and witchcraft in the ancient and medieval worlds. This is the context in which I found myself reading two books by Dr. John M. Riddle, a professor of history at North Carolina State University, published by Harvard University Press. The first wasContraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (1992) and the second was Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West (2002).

Contraception and Abortion from the
Ancient World to the Renaissance

To begin, Riddle’s thesis in this work is simple: contraception, abortifacients and abortion-inducing substances are not modern inventions. Both the ancient and medieval worlds had knowledge of herbs and other plants that, when administered in a certain ways, prevented conception or caused women to abort. That being said, I did not find this work as interesting as Eve’s Herbs. While Riddle does an excellent job detailing the various formulas used throughout history to prevent conception and induce abortion, Contraception and Abortion often reads like a cookbook or a pharmacist’s manual. Thus, I would find it tedious reading, since my interest lay more with the why than the how.

Nevertheless, I am glad I read Contraception and Abortion for three reasons:

1) the book confirms, in great detail, that abortion and contraception have been practised for as long as man has kept written records;

2) the book admits that abortion and contraception are often linked to pagan gods (or more commonly, goddesses); and

3) the book corroborates – from a secular, scholarly and historical perspective – that the Christian church has struggled against abortion and contraception for centuries, and thus, our present-day struggle as right-to-life activists is nothing new.

Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West

I found Eve’s Herbs the more compelling of Riddle’s two books. While it was not without its weaknesses, it answered a question that had long troubled me: I had often wondered why Holy Scripture appeared to say so little about the grave evils of abortion and contraception. As a pro-life Christian, it troubled me that the Bible never mentioned the words “abortion” or “contraception.” Eve’s Herbs provided me with a startling realization: in ancient and medieval times, contraception and abortion were often considered a form of sorcery and witchcraft, rather than a form of medicine.

Thus, Holy Scripture may never use the words abortion and contraception; however, the Bible is not silent on the issue. It simply condemns these practices under a different name. For example, Riddle notes the following while discussing the medieval witch: “The magic associated with women was often connected to their use of herbs.” He then cites a number of modern studies corroborating the effectiveness of the anti-fertility herbs used by witches and midwives during the Middle Ages. “In other words, the deeds described in the 15th century as the sevenfold traits of witchcraft are all creditable, according to modern medicine,” Riddle states. “Midwives and witches, whether one and the same, knew the drugs to take to reduce fertility.”

The author quotes modern historian Richard Trexler: “Infanticide was far and away the most common social crime imputed to the aged witches of Europe by the demonologists.” While sometimes prone to accepting the allegations of anti- Catholic historians, Riddle disputes one of their more common claims; namely, that midwives were often singled out for accusations of witchcraft because they were women of prominence and influence. “More likely,” he writes, “the primary reason witches were persecuted was the same as that for which a woman in Hamburg was burnt to death in 1477: ‘because she had instructed young females how to use abortion medicines.’” He had already noted that “Sexual offences were, by far, the leading offences of which witches were accused in three Essex villages between 1560 and 1599.”

Eve’s Herbs is an excellent expose of the wide availability of contraception and abortion in the ancient and medieval times. It also does a fairly good job, from a secular and scholarly perspective, of showing the historical link between contraception, abortion and witchcraft.

Pete Vere, The Interim’s senior reporter, is co-author of Surprised by Canon Law: 150 Questions Catholics Ask About Canon Law.