The Pros and Cons of Having an Herbal Abortion
While tens of thousands of women are attempting to self-induce abortion because they lack access to reproductive health care, some herbalists are willingly choosing "emmenagogues," or abortive herbs over medical abortions. But are they safe?
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When Claire* realized she was pregnant, she knew that she didn't want to have a medical abortion—just as she knew that she wasn't going to carry the developing cluster of cells to term. A 27-year-old multi-hyphenate (a trained permaculturist, writer, and artist, among other things) living in New York, Claire is sober and "doesn't even use inorganic face products or body wash." The thought of loading her body with pharmaceuticals in order to abort her pregnancy sent her searching for a different option. So she called up Lauren*, a friend and doula in Los Angeles who, as friends in Los Angeles often do, had an alternative: herbs.
"I knew I would do some kind of ritual and be really present for my abortion—I just didn't know what that was going to look like," Claire told me over the phone. "I didn't want a procedure involving chemicals because I don't put any fake chemicals in or on my body, so I spoke to a friend who is a healer in LA, and she sent me a recipe for an emmenagogue tea."
The word was not one I'd heard before, and it seems to be more of a euphemism than a descriptor. "There are centuries of practice and use with emmenagogue herbs," Lauren told me in an email. "I intuitively felt into the energy of the herbs and created the amounts based on the mother's intention. Based on society's response to herbs and witches, we don't necessarily say abortion—God only knows if they'll outlaw certain herbs these days—but emmenagogues are herbs or a formula to induce your menstrual cycle if you are late. Some [users] have taken tests and know they're pregnant; some are assuming. Either way, the herbs have a good chance of bringing your cycle on."
In other words, emmenagogues are abortive herbs, and they're most effective before a pregnancy reaches six weeks. You might have some in your kitchen right now: Parsley, mugwort, pennyroyal, Queen Anne's lace seeds, and black cohosh all have abortive properties, and for centuries before institutionalized health care, women managed their reproductive health using plants like these. Now, however, the knowledge of these plants has mostly been forgotten, save for the few herbalists who have made the effort to research them.
There's also, of course, an excess of bad information about them online. Search "herbal abortion" on Tumblr and you'll find plenty of how-to posts. A recent article about the rise of herbal abortions on Mic underscored the dangers of taking this online advice and running with it, and abortion providers agree that the increase of women turning to at-home abortion methods indicates what a dismal place we're in when it comes to women's reproductive health. On a press call for the National Abortion Federation about the state of women's health in Texas, Tenesha Duncan, an administrator at the Southwestern Women's Surgery Center, said, "Some women may try to end their pregnancies on their own because it's so difficult to access a safe abortion in Texas. The first week after the law changed, we started seeing an increase in patients who had tried something to end their pregnancy before coming to the clinic. That week, a doctor found parsley in a patient's vagina."
Unfortunately, stories about self-induced abortion are rarely not stories about desperation in a political climate where women's reproductive rights are far from guaranteed. But for some women, like Claire, a home abortion is akin to home birth: a choice.
"I want to be present for my birth, and I also wanted to be present for my abortion," Claire said, though she ultimately didn't go through with the herbal route because of the potential complications. "What it really came down to was that I couldn't find a witch or doula versed in herbal abortions who could lead me through it," she explained. "If I had been more of a bad bitch maybe I would have [done it myself], but honestly, I have good fortune of health care paid for through my work. I live in a city where I could easily travel to a Planned Parenthood and have a successful abortion without being shamed by my doctor" At the behest of another herbalist friend who reminded her that one can turn anything into a sacred ritual, that's what Claire did. "I ended up blessing the misoprostol in a ritual, sending love to everyone involved," she said.
Ingesting anything unknown, let alone powerful herbs that can induce cramps and bleeding, can indeed be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. That's where someone like Andi Grace, a community folk herbalist who teaches the forgotten uses of medicinal herbs (and uses the pronouns they/them), comes in. After they had a negative reaction to birth control, they started learning about potential ways herbs could help them manage their own reproductive cycle; they also wanted a way to treat their insomnia without heavy sedatives. Now they focus on helping others use plants to do the same. In addition to doing in-person consultations and reproductive workshops, Grace created a brief explainer about herbal abortions as well as a poster with more specific instructions on how to induce an abortion using herbs at home. "When I started using herbs to treat my insomnia, I had this realization that I could use herbs to treat my body. The more I used them and the more I made my own medicine, I started to build a life-changing relationship with the plants," Grace said.
"Herbs are effective, but they're not 100 percent effective," they explained. "They're more effective if you know how to use them, and they're dangerous if you don't know how to use them. If you take a heroic dose you can end up making yourself sick.
"For me, what I think is important about this work is giving people the information," they continued. "People are going to do herbal abortions—they've been doing them for thousands of years, and there's lots of reasons that people still do them. It's important for people to have the information to do them well and do them safely. Sometimes it can be really hard to find clear information."
The whole course of modern medicine has been about suppressing herbalists and midwives, calling them witches—as if that was a bad thing.
Being fully informed, Grace said, is one of the best things you can do if you're considering an herbal abortion, which is often challenging in itself. "The ideal scenario is you have an herbalist—or at least someone to help you through it, like a doula—and you have a doctor who can give you an ultrasound to make sure you don't have any complications like an ectopic pregnancy. But unfortunately, most of the time, when you go to the doctor they will strongly advise against herbal abortions. It can be challenging to put together a health care team for someone who is choosing that." They also added that people with contraindications, like heart or kidney problems, should exercise even more caution, or rethink their decision to have an herbal abortion entirely.
While certainly knowledgeable, Grace isn't a medical professional. Most doctors, as Grace pointed out, are quick to dismiss the idea of an herbal abortion as a safe abortion. When I contacted the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a representative from the organization told me that "ACOG does not consider herbal abortion as an appropriate way to end a pregnancy. A doctor would never recommend it." She then pointed me to some grim statistics about women driven to unsafe, illegal abortions. They result in 50,000 deaths annually.
As a current holistic gynecologist and former herbalist, Dr. Eden Fromberg is in a unique position to speak from both sides of the issue. (She began our conversation by saying, "I don't know anybody who's about to tell you the things I'm about to tell you.") Before she was "Dr." Fromberg, she studied herbalism, as it applied to women's health, while she was going to school in Santa Cruz, California. "It was hard to find specific information at the time, in the late 70s and early 80s," she told me over the phone, "but the used bookstores of Santa Cruz were some of the best places for me to obtain material. People would get rid of books that were really obscure and controversial. One day I finally came across an herbal abortion book that gave quantities and how to combine herbs."
That information proved to be useful over holiday break one semester when she lost track of her fertility awareness calendar and thought she might have gotten pregnant. Her suspicions bolstered by a friend who stopped her shortly after the realization to tell her about a dream she'd had in which Fromberg was giving birth, and by her first husband's psychic mother calling and asking if she was pregnant, Dr. Fromberg drank aloe and pennyroyal tea in an attempt to induce her period.
"All I know is that I was late and then it came," Fromberg said. "So I may have had an herbal abortion of sorts in my youth."
Now, as a certified OB/GYN, Fromberg performs both surgical and medical abortions, but not herbal. She's not against the alternative method, but it's not something she would do as a licensed doctor. "I would have really no support from my colleagues," she said of the practice. "There really isn't a basis for herbal abortion in current medical care. That's not saying that there couldn't be, and [that] people couldn't study these herbs more and bring it back, but the whole course of modern medicine has been about suppressing herbalists and midwives, calling them witches—as if that was a bad thing—and literally burning them at the stake. The modern equivalent of that would be being sued or having one's license examined—and that would happen to me if I decided to incorporate herbal abortions into what I do.
"That being said, I think it's wonderful that women and herbalists who have this knowledge are exploring it," she continued. "There's sadly no place right now for it in medicine, but there's obviously a hunger for this information, and it would be great if we could create safe, standard guidelines for it."
*Names have been changed