Experts warn against using herbs as abortion alternative
CLAIM: Herbs including pennyroyal, mugwort and parsley are viable alternatives to abortion.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Experts strongly warn against trying to self-manage an abortion using any herbs, as many of these alleged remedies not only do not work but are dangerous or even deadly.
THE FACTS: In the week since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to overturn constitutional protections for abortion, social media posts suggesting potentially toxic herbal remedies to end pregnancies have surged.
TikTok videos touting herbal teas and essential oils as abortion alternatives have recieved massive amounts of engagement on the platform, with some related hashtags amassing millions of views. Facebook and Instagram posts have instructed pregnant people to “avoid” herbs like pennyroyal, parsley, mugwort, rue, black cohosh and blue cohosh if they want to keep their pregnancies, with the subtext that people should try the herbs if they want to miscarry.
“Learn which herbs are critical to avoid during pregnancy if you want to carry your baby to term,” one Instagram caption read. “Do with this information what you will.”
The posts have alarmed obstetricians and toxicologists, who say herbal remedies are not only generally ineffective as abortion alternatives, but are often dangerous or even deadly for the pregnant person.
“There are no herbal remedies, period, that are safe and effective for inducing an abortion or preventing pregnancy,” Dr. Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist who teaches at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, told The Associated Press.
Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, a gynecologist and professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, also strongly urged women seeking an abortion not try any “herbal therapies.”
“This is how women can die. I am strongly urging women to contact their providers to talk about options, and if they don’t have a provider, call the nearest Planned Parenthood,” Minkin wrote in an email to the AP.
For example, pennyroyal, a plant featured in many of the posts, contains a compound called pulegone that is toxic to the liver and potentially deadly.
“There’s no safe amount” of pennyroyal that can be ingested, Marino said, and applying the oil topically is also not advised.
Mugwort and wormwood, herbs also recommended in several posts, contain a compound called thujone that can cause “very difficult-to-treat refractory seizures,” he said. The herb rue can cause organ injury, black cohosh has been associated with liver injuries, and blue cohosh can make people sick to their stomach, he said.
Even seemingly benign herbs like parsley if consumed in certain ways can be toxic to the liver, neurons and kidneys, Marino said.
While such severe health effects might cause someone to lose a pregnancy, they can also cause the recipient to lose their life, he said.
“I mean, certainly if a pregnant person poisons themself to the extent of severe organ failure, there’s a good chance that they will lose their pregnancy,” Marino said. “But that’s not a direct effect of the pennyroyal, that’s a secondary effect from the pregnant person being poisoned.”
Dr. Nathaniel DeNicola, an obstetrician and gynecologist with Caduceus Medical Group in Southern California, also noted that pennyroyal is very toxic. And while some herbs and spices listed in the posts are not ingredients he would specifically warn his pregnant patients to avoid, he said people should consult their physician about how to manage their pregnancies — not social media.
Representatives from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also warn against taking herbs as alternatives to abortion and following advice from social media. Dr. Nisha Verma, a Darney-Landy fellow at ACOG, noted in an email that people can safely self-manage medication abortions under the guidance of medical professionals.
Marino suggests contacting an OB-GYN to get more information about safe abortion methods, and contacting a poison control center if you have already tried a potentially dangerous home remedy.
“Knowing that there are other options is really important,” he said. “There are people out there who want to help you, and your life matters.”
Associated Press writer Graph Massara in San Francisco contributed to this report.
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