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History of Reproductive Rights and Health

This guide has resources for researching reproductive health and autonomy throughout history.

Historic Terms and Keywords

Throughout history, abortion wasn't always discussed in explicit terms. Many primary sources discuss contraception and abortion in terms of regulating menstruation or promoting/discouraging fertility. Menstruation and uteruses were not fully understood by medical practitioners until very recently, and this lead to many unusual medical theories about the function of periods and reproductive organs and how they impacted people's health.

The chart below contains useful contemporary and historical terms that can be used to search for and understand primary sources about reproductive health.

Menses Refers to the period of menstruation or the matter discharged from the uterus during a period.
Menarche Usually refers to the first period or instance of menstruation
Amenorrhea Absence of menstrual period
Abortifacient Substance, drug, or stimuli used to end a pregnancy
Contraception Birth control
Hysteria (historical term) A broad term used for centuries to describe the health, behavior, or emotions of women that men considered excessive or unaligned with traditional gender roles. It originated from the ancient Greek word for womb, hystera. This is no longer considered a valid condition or diagnosis.
The quickening (historical term) The point in a pregnancy where the fetus can be felt moving. In premodern history, this term was used to distinguish the individuality or personhood of a fetus.
Flowers (historical term) Premodern euphemism used by herbalists to refer to menstruation. (ex: "Bring on the flowers" means inducing a period)
Courses (historical term) Premodern euphemism used to refer to menstrual periods in medical texts. (Ex: "A woman's courses" means menstrual periods)
Foetus/foetuses (historical term) Medieval spelling of fetus/es

Using Inclusive Language

This video gives a quick and useful overview of how to talk about reproductive rights, health, and menstruation using inclusive terms.