When Julie James learned she was pregnant in 1989, she concocted a mixture of herbs in an attempt to terminate the pregnancy.
Abortion was legal and accessible, but James was an herbalist — she’d studied at the California School of Herbal Studies and her job was to use plants as alternative health treatments for patients. So her curiosity prompted her to try herbs instead. But the method made her sick and didn’t end the pregnancy, she said, so she ultimately got a medical abortion.
James, who still practices in Long Beach, California, said that instead of recommending herbs to end a pregnancy, she now tries “to talk people out of it.”
Her warning comes as many online have been suggesting herbal remedies as a way to end unwanted pregnancies after the Supreme Court in May overturned Roe v. Calf.
Information on herbs and plants that are purported to help induce abortions — such as pennyroyal, mugwort and high doses of vitamin C — has circulated widely on a variety of social media platforms, including TikTok, spurred by new fears of restricted abortion access.
But people who have used these herbs themselves are also coming forward, sharing their stories online to persuade people not to consider the method.
Using herbs to end a pregnancy can be harmful. Overconsumption of pennyroyal and mugwort, for example, can cause liver failure, according to Ryan Marino, the medical director of toxicology and addiction at the University Hospitals in Cleveland, Ohio.
Marino said he has seen several extreme cases of herbal poisoning among his patients, including some who suffered seizures. Pennyroyal is especially dangerous, he said.
“Even in cases where people don’t get symptomatic, or don’t end up hospitalized, it’s associated with long-term cancer risk,” Marino said. “It’s a known human carcinogen, and every time those molecules are in your body, they’re doing something bad there.”
Marino said it is difficult to find data on the prevalence of herbal abortion attempts. Unless a woman discloses to a doctor that she has taken a specific herb, it’s hard to link particular symptoms to its consumption.
Mothers who tried using herbs in the past hope their children never do
Rachel Morgan, 43, said she turned to autumn in 2006 while experiencing a miscarriage. She believes the blue and black cohosh she consumed may have helped her pass tissue more quickly.
But Morgan, of San Jose, California, said she does not recommend the practice and is terrified by the misinformation she sees on social media about herbal abortifacients, or substances that can help induce abortions.
“I’m not sure what’s scarier, the herbs that people might take, or the other desperate measures they’ll take if they don’t have the herbs to take,” she said.
I’m not sure what’s scarier, the herbs that people might take, or the other desperate measures they’ll take if they don’t have the herbs to take
-Rachel Morgan, who used herbs in 2006
Morgan is also concerned about her 20-year-old daughter getting exposed to this misinformation on social media. “I did tell her, ‘You can’t rely on this. You can’t let your friends rely on this,’” Morgan said. “’If you guys need help, come talk to me.’”
Rebecca, a 47-year-old mother of three who asked to go by her first name for fear of losing her job, also said she worries about the misinformation on herbal abortions proliferating online.
Rebecca, who is from New York, said she tried to give herself an abortion at age 15 by using pennyroyal and tansy, which she bought at a local store. She didn’t have the money or means of transportation to get a surgical abortion, Rebecca said, so she looked up information on various herbs, including abortifacients, in an encyclopedia.
“It just made me really sick,” she said. “I stayed pregnant and I ended up having to procure a medical abortion.”
Rebecca said she hopes if her sons and their partners ever need to end a pregnancy, they’ll come to her for assistance instead of taking advice from the internet.
Combatting misinformation on herbal abortions
Even social media posts reacting to misinformation may further spread those falsities, rather than raise awareness about safe abortion options, according to Nina Reddy, the outreach coordinator for Access Reproductive Care Southeast. The organization provides funding and support to people in the South who are seeking abortions or other women’s health services.
Reddy said local organizations like hers still plan to help people in getting safe abortions, even those living in states with bans, by helping them secure funding, transportation and escort services.
“If the common narrative out there is that the first resort if Roe is gutted for a person to have an abortion is to harm themselves and have an unsafe abortion, then it’s going to set us back years and years,” Reddy said. “It’s so important to get information out there.”
Even though she’s devoted her career to alternative herbal remedies, James also said she doesn’t want anyone to think it’s appropriate or safe to use herbs for abortions.
“We need chemical and medical abortions available because these herbs won’t do it,” she said.
TikTok, where some videos on the topic have racked up millions of views, has blocked several hashtags related to “herbal abortions” in the last two weeks.
In an email, a TikTok spokesperson said that the platform is “taking action on the content that violates our Community Guidelines on medical misinformation.” TikTok said it is removing content and redirecting relevant search results for the hashtags #herbalabortion, #pennyroyalteaabortion, and #mugwortabortion.
Already, as of Friday, many of the videos that contained these hashtags had been removed.
YouTube on Thursday also said it would take a tougher line on abortion-related misinformation. The video platform said it will start removing videos and other content with instructions for unsafe abortion methods or with false claims about abortion safety.