Pennyroyal in mortar and pestle

Photo via Alonso Aguilar / (Licensed)

More people are turning to 'natural' options for abortion, but there are serious risks involved.

As long as people have been getting pregnant, they have been trying to figure out how to stop being pregnant. And as long as people have wanted to stop being pregnant, there have also been people trying to make them stay pregnant. Because of societal pressures, government interests, and age-old morality debates, abortion is stigmatized in a way no other medical procedure is.

And yet unwanted pregnancy isn't something that's going to cease to exist anytime soon, especially in an America that is slow to teach teenagers about contraception. As access to medical abortion continues to be chipped away at, many people are looking for alternatives. Which is why some have begun scouring the internet for tips on how to have an herbal abortion.

What is an herbal abortion?

To put it simply, it’s an abortion achieved through plants and herbs rather than medication or surgery. Plenty of medications get their active ingredients from something derived from nature, and we have long relied on plants in their purest forms to cure us of certain ailments. Ever drink peppermint or ginger tea to cure a sour stomach? Use aloe on a sunburn? It's something a little like that.

Historically, women often held a deep knowledge of natural remedies, especially when it came to contraception and abortion. Women helped each other end their pregnancies, but it was still a dangerous practice, and those who did it were often persecuted and even sometimes accused of witchcraft. (The witch-hunt manual Malleus Maleficarum accused witches of performing abortions because they “are in the habit of devouring and eating infant children.”)

As medical science advanced, men began to fill the roles of surgeons and dismissed “natural” medicine as ineffective and dangerous. It’s certainly true that science has given us safer medicines and methods for surgery—not to mention, a deeper understanding of how the human body works—so it makes sense that the medicine these “witch doctors” practiced would be considered outdated.

However, that doesn’t mean those practices just disappeared. Information on how to perform things like herbal abortions still got passed down from generation to generation. Many of the herbs involved in these remedies contain active ingredients that do the same thing as RU-486—aka the legal "Abortion Pill," which namely blocks progesterone—or other ingredients like Oxytocin, which induces uterine contractions.

What are these natural abortifacients?

You know that Nirvana song “Pennyroyal Tea”? Yeah, it’s about abortion. Or, really, about a well-known and long-used abortifacient. The pennyroyal plant, a commonly used culinary herb by the Greeks and Romans, produced a poisonous oil that could be used in tea to promote menstruation or abortion.

“Before safe surgical abortion methods were invented, abortifacients like pennyroyal were one of the few options women had to prevent childbirth after conception had occurred,” wrote Kaye Wierzbicki for the Toast. “In times and places where surgical abortions were unavailable, illegal, or taboo, these herbs provided an appealing alternative to other back-alley methods. After all, pennyroyal is just a flower—a spice, a perfume, a decorative bouquet, a cup of tea: How dangerous can it be?”

Well, definitely dangerous. “Pennyroyal has caused death,” Andi Grace, a herbalist who has written extensively about herbal abortion, told the Daily Dot. However, they say it’s “almost always with someone taking the essential oil, which is much more concentrated.” Pennyroyal can cause damage to the liver and extensive bleeding as well, and some sources say it can result in birth defects if an abortion doesn't work.

Other herbs that have been used for abortion are mugwort, parsley, dong quai, cohosh variants, and even high doses of Vitamin C. Some work by interfering with various hormones, some induce bleeding or uterine contractions, and some help to “relax” the cervix.

Do they work?

Because of the lack of records on just who has attempted herbal abortions, it’s hard to track how effective they are. “When performed correctly, an herbal abortion has somewhere between a 40 and 80 percent effectiveness rate, depending on what source you look to,” writes Grace. But that efficacy depends on a number of factors.

Grace attributes the lack of information about effectiveness to the stigma around abortions, especially herbal abortions. “I can tell you, I know lots of people for whom this has worked. I get these messages all the time,” they said. “But those people are not going to a doctor and reporting that.”

Efficacy also depends on things like the source of the herbs, their potency, an individual’s body and hormone levels, and timing. The consensus seems to be that, if they work, they’re the most effective within the first six weeks of pregnancy. Which provides another barrier, given that without a doctor’s input, it’s hard to tell just how long you’ve been pregnant. 

“Once a pregnancy sets in, the longer you wait, the higher of a dosage you need to be taking and the more taxing it is on the liver, or on your hormonal system, or your heart, depending on the herbs you’re taking,” says Grace. After six weeks, many herbalists won’t recommend going the herbal route. 

One common misconception, says Grace, is that these are one-dose remedies. “If you were far along in your pregnancy and it was stable, and you had a cup of pennyroyal tea, that single cup of tea would be very unlikely to end your pregnancy,” they say. Instead, it takes a regular dosage, sometimes over a period of weeks. However, some people don’t realize that, and that’s where they run into trouble. “What happens is people either try the herbs and are inconsistent with them, or they get them from a source that is not very potent, or they start late in the process, or all at once. And then it doesn’t work and it’s very frustrating.”

It’s important to note that just because you’re using plants doesn’t mean an herbal abortion is inherently safer than one performed by a doctor. Many people have seriously harmed themselves attempting herbal abortions. 

“Some herbalists feel that herbal abortions are more dangerous than clinical abortions. Abortive herbs are toxic and do have side effects,” says one herbal guide. “They are not safer because they are natural. Clinical abortions are certainly more effective. Most importantly, an herbal abortion should never be undertaken unless a women [sic] is willing to follow up with a clinical abortion if the herbs fail.”

Why are people going the herbal abortion route?

Despite the risks, lots of people are turning to herbal remedies. A quick Google search reveals numerous instructive blog posts and personal accounts of the procedure, with tips and warnings for anyone seeking one for themselves. Sometimes it’s because they’ve had a bad experience with hospitals and surgeons, or just don’t trust Big Medicine. Sometimes it’s because they like the idea of a more “holistic” approach to abortion. But the main reason seems to be that going to a doctor for an abortion is something that’s less and less available.

Because of TRAP laws in Texas, only 18 clinics are legally able to perform abortions in the whole state. “7% of abortion patients in Texas reported taking or doing something on their own to try to end their current pregnancy,” according to research from the Texas Policy Evaluation Project in 2012. Some of that involved women finding RU-486 on the black market to induce abortion, rather than using herbal methods. 

Why are people against herbal abortions?

Even staunchly pro-choice activists sometimes have a hard time accepting herbal abortions as a legitimate option. The lack of clinical research certainly makes some skeptical, as well as the risk of people with no medical background getting false information online and possibly seriously hurting themselves.

“The harshest critiques and threats have come from feminists who believe that what I’m doing is hurting women,” says Grace. “Because there’s a narrative that’s like, we had to fight so hard to legalize abortion, and part of that was letting go of the archaic strategies people used to use, so why would you advocate for those strategies?” Grace argues that being “pro-choice” means being pro-every choice, and encouraging that accurate information about those choices be available to as many people as possible.

However, the biggest concern is that it’s often easier to access the herbs for an abortion than it is to access accurate information about it. Though certain herbs are trickier to obtain, just about anybody can get their hands on a bunch of parsley, mugwort, or Queen Anne’s Lace seeds. Grace says, “There’s a difference between skillfully used herbs and a hanger,” but there’s also a big difference between skillfully using herbs and misusing them. Most people don’t have that skill, and due to these stigmas, many doulas, midwives, or herbalists who do have that skill are reticent to advertise it.

Is herbal abortion something you should try?

Obviously, we’re not medical professionals (or herbalists), so we can’t recommend what you should or shouldn't do with your body. However, according to Grace, herbal abortion can be difficult and dangerous, especially if it’s not something you’ve already researched and planned for.

Imagine, for example, you've missed your period, so you take a pregnancy test and it comes back positive. You have no idea how long you’ve been pregnant, you don’t know the health of your liver or your heart, and you Google “herbal abortion” only to find a slew of herbs that could help, accompanied by their equally impressive risks and side effects. Taking stock of your health, sourcing herbs, and discerning accurate information is really hard if you’re already in crisis mode.

Because of that, Grace says it’s best to consult someone who has already done that research and planning, “and that can be hard to do because a lot of registered midwives or doulas either don’t have the information or only have stigmatized versions of the information.” Especially if time is of the essence. 

Herbal abortion may have worked for some people, but modern society has made it incredibly difficult to procure one safely. 

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