As long as people have been getting pregnant, they've been looking for ways to end their pregnancies. Sometimes these ways have worked. Sometimes they haven't. We're going to take a quick look at the history of abortifacient herbs, and be very, very happy we live in the present.
One of the best parts of modern chemical birth control is the fact that it prevents pregnancy in the first place. It was not always so. Chemical birth control used to be something that people turned to after conception. And like most types of birth control before the twentieth century, it was a nasty business. It was not, however, always an illegal business - at least until four months into the pregnancy. There were always drugs, either grown in the garden or sold for other purposes, that at the least made spontaneous chemical abortions more likely. The chemicals meant to 'bring on the monthly waters' were not generally acknowledged, but they were also not illegal, either to grow or sell. Historical accounts have women regularly obtaining them, and even entire recipe books. It was only towards the 1820s that laws restricting their use went into effect, and those were poison control laws, not laws restricting abortion.
Even when the law started cracking down, it took decades before the pills were stamped out of existence. In America, Anne Lohman, an untrained doctor's assistant, took the name Madame Restell and declared herself a "female physician." She had a Fifth Avenue clinic in mid-1800s New York where she performed abortions, and also had salesmen that crossed the country selling "Preventive Powders and Female Monthly Pills." She advertised in newspapers. She was notable for her financial success in the birth control business, but not much else. Plenty of people sold similar stuff quite openily. Adds for powders and pills could be found in the back of most women's magazines.
Restell's preventative powders were almost certainly bogus. The monthly pills, though, contained herbs that did increase the odds of abortion. When these didn't work, Restell channeled women to her abortion services. The overall package made her massively rich. It also earned her the title of "The Wickedest Woman in New York," and constant arrests and sting attempts by law enforcement services. Throughout Restell's forty year practice, the laws against giving out any birth control information or services became progressively harsher, and so when she was finally arrested by Anthony Comstock himself, she killed herself rather than face trial.
But what was she, and women like her back through history, peddling? What were any of these drugs and what did they do? One thing is certain; they didn't ensure an abortion. Even silphium, a birth control method so supposedly foolproof that it was driven to extinction by the Romans, isn't thought to be practically useful. Generally early chemical abortifacients fell into two categories - herbs that induced uterine contractions and stimulated blood flow, and herbs that outright poisoned people.