If you were scrolling through TikTok in the days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, you might be forgiven for thinking that you could give yourself an abortion by walking over to Whole Foods and eating a handful of parsley.
For days, mythical-sounding herbs that seemed plucked right out of Hogwarts — pennyroyal, mugwort, blue cohosh and, yes, the bitter garnish parsley — were shared by TikTok users as ingredients they claimed would bring on menstruation or cause a miscarriage, known as herbal emmenagogues or abortifacients. Creators suggested making tea by brewing the herbs in hot water or taking them in tablet or liquid forms. “Definitely don’t use these herbs if you want to remain pregnant,” one creator wrote, with a-wink-and-a-nudge tone, in the caption of a video that has since been taken down.
But according to medical experts and trained herbalists, herbal abortifacients can be dangerous and there isn’t any data on whether they work.
“My hard-line position, for 35 years, has been that they are not reliably effective,” said Dr. Aviva Romm, a women’s health physician, midwife and herbalist who wrote the textbook “Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health.” “And the doses of the herbs that one would have to take for it to possibly be effective are so high that they are virtually always toxic to the pregnant person” or the fetus. After seeing the worrying spread of the misinformation online, she posted a video on Instagram urging her followers not to “listen to what you hear on TikTok.”
Input Magazine and Rolling Stone were among the first news outlets to report on the TikTok trend in late June, noting that the hashtags #pennyroyaltea and #mugwort had been viewed tens of millions of times. The reporting eventually spurred the social media platform to take down many of the videos.
A propagation of misinformation
Many of the herbs that have been making the rounds on social media contain chemicals that can lead to adverse side effects. Pennyroyal, a plant with spiky purple flowers, famously known for its appearance in a Nirvana song, has long been used as insect repellent. But when swallowed in a concentrated oil form, it is “highly toxic,” according to the National Institutes of Health, and even one tablespoon can cause fainting, seizures, cardiac arrest, coma, liver injury and multiple organ failure. There has been at least one recorded case of death, in 1978, of an 18-year-old woman who ingested one ounce of pennyroyal oil to induce an abortion. If taken in high enough doses and in certain forms, parsley, blue cohosh and mugwort have also been reported to be poisonous.
Some studies have found that a little more than a third of women have tried to use herbal abortifacients to end their pregnancies, but whether or not those herbs worked is unclear. In one study published in 2021, researchers found that of the small pool of 14 survey respondents who had attempted to self-induce an abortion, five said they had used various preparations of herbs, like parsley, black cohosh or ginger root. One respondent had inserted parsley leaves in her vagina. Other methods included taking supplemental vitamin C, drinking vodka for three to four hours, or taking ibuprofen and antibiotics. More than half of the 14 participants reported that they were no longer pregnant after their attempts. In a 2020 survey published in the journal JAMA Network Open, researchers found that of the more than 7,000 women who said they had self-managed their abortions, about 38 percent had used herbs. Yet, of the roughly 7,000 respondents, less than a third said that they had successfully terminated their pregnancies.
And recently, the interest in alternatives to the medical abortion pills, which are still legal in most states, has soared — an indication, experts said, of the heightened fear and confusion around how to handle an unexpected pregnancy as the issue of abortion access returns to state legislators. Google Trends data suggests that searches for D.I.Y. abortion and certain herbs, like pennyroyal, have been higher in the weeks since the Supreme Court draft decision was leaked in May than they have been in five years.
“Some people may turn to unsafe abortion methods when they feel they have no other option or based on information they are gathering on social media,” said Dr. Nisha Verma, an OB-GYN and a fellow at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “It is important for people to understand that social media posts can be unreliable and can propagate misinformation.”
Aside from the potentially adverse side effects, trying certain unproven herbal remedies may also cause women to further delay medical care or be dishonest with emergency physicians, which can put them in even more danger, Dr. Romm said. “The reality is, it’s not going to work a lot of the time, and so you’re still going to have to potentially get medical treatment,” she said. “But now, when you go and get the treatment, you’ve tried to ingest something that is not going to be seen favorably or understood by the medical community, and it increases your risk of not being treated the way you want to be treated.”
The allure of ancient remedies
For centuries, before the advent of surgical and medical abortions or birth control options, women have turned to herbs to control their reproduction. Historians have discovered references to abortifacients and herbal birth control methods in ancient texts from China, India and throughout the African and Latin American continents.
In Europe, the distinctly prickly “savin tree was the abortifacient of choice,” said Londa Schiebinger, a professor of the history of science at Stanford University. “You could usually identify a midwife by seeing that tree right outside her house.” And during the colonization of the West Indies, enslaved women used herbal abortifacients as a way to avoid giving birth to offspring who would also be enslaved, according to Dr. Schiebinger’s research.
It wasn’t until the 15th century that authorities in the Western world really started cracking down on abortifacients and, historians have noted, accusing midwives who would have provided herbal reproductive care of witchcraft and persecuting them.
But even those who respect and honor the history of abortifacients have warned against turning to them in this time. “I am not taking away from the importance of using abortifacient herbs and emergency contraceptive herbs because our ancestors were doing it,” Leslie Rae, an herbalist, said in a video on TikTok. But, she added, “when you get online and you’re telling people, ‘Oh, you can take X, Y and Z to end a pregnancy,’ do you know how to prepare that herb? Do you know how to dose it? Do you know what parts of the plant to use?”
“TikTok witches and fake herbalists: Please stop giving people advice on abortifacient herbs,” she said.
Additionally, historical use of a substance should not be conflated with evidence of safety or efficacy, said Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB-GYN and author of several books, including “The Vagina Bible.” The allure of ancient remedies relies on the false idea that they are time-tested and safe because they are natural. But, she added, they are often taken out of context and from a time when the understanding of the human body was less sophisticated than it is today.
For example, pennyroyal is seen by some proponents as a legitimate remedy because it was used during the time of Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician who was considered to be the father of modern medicine. “But, at the time of Hippocrates, they also believed that the uterus wandered the body,” Dr. Gunter said.
“Using this kind of information from thousands of years ago is no different than taking a map from when people believed the Earth was flat and that we had sea monsters and using it to plot modern shipping routes.”
In other words, when it comes to abortions and emergency contraceptives, stick to what has been thoroughly researched and tested by scientists.
“I don’t care if something comes out of the ground or comes out of the lab,” Dr. Gunter said. “Does it work? And is it safe? That’s what I care about.”
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