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Ben Franklin’s Abortion Recipe


We may need this:

But Franklin’s choice to get Tennent’s pamphlet into the hands of readers all over the colonies meant that anyone learning to read, write, and calculate with his book would also have access to the leading available treatment for ending a pregnancy. Tennent’s handbook prescribes angelica, an herb known to be an effective abortifacient in the early stages of pregnancy for thousands of years, and which was frequently recommended across early modern herbal books.* Moreover, the recipe refers to several herbal abortifacients known at the time:

For this Misfortune, you must purge with Highland Flagg, (commonly called Bellyach Root) a Week before you expect to be out of Order; and repeat the same two Days after; the next Morning drink a Quarter of Pint of Pennyroyal Water, or Decoction, with 12 Drops of Spirits of Harts-horn, and as much again at Night, when you go to Bed. Continue this 9 Days running; and after resting 3 Days, go on with it for 9 more.

The entry combines attention to potent herbs with careful accounting of dosage to treat the “misfortune.” Here the entry recommends acting early before someone might “expect to be out of order” with their next period. This is consistent with the timing for maximum efficacy for angelica, aka “Bellyach Root,” a plant member of the carrot family. Likewise, pennyroyal was known even to the ancient Greeks as a form of birth control; “Harts-horn,” or century plant, was also commonly recommended at the time as part of concoctions for abortions and expelling afterbirth. The entry concludes by advising that the patients “shou’d be cautious of taking Opiates too often, or Jesuits-Bark”—a remedy for malaria sometimes mistakenly thought to be an abortifacient—and just in case anyone was not clear on what caused this malady, “nor must they long for pretty Fellows, or any other Trash whatsoever.” So: avoid sex.

The recipe details, moreover, assume that these “unmarry’d Women” had the kind of knowledge of arithmetic that the book’s earlier instructional sections had taught. The recipe insists on careful attention to measurement and counting. And it asks the preparer to work with repeated multiples of three. Franklin had a track record of promoting female education, and of arithmetic for them in particular. He advocates for it in his early, anonymous “Silence Dogood” articles, and in his Autobiography singles out a Dutch printer’s widow who saved the family business thanks to her education. There, Franklin makes an explicit call “recommending that branch of education for our young females.” He likely hoped that his American Instructor would reach audiences that included women and girls; and based on his choice of which medical book to reprint, he may also have understood that the Dutch widow would have needed to know how to end an unwanted pregnancy just as much as she would need to know how to balance an account book.

Time to cancel Franklin in Florida and Texas textbooks!

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