What is an herbal abortion?
An effective herbal abortion involves using a combination of plant remedies to soften the cervix, end a pregnancy and stimulate bleeding to clear the pregnancy from the body. Basically an herbal abortion intentionally causes a miscarriage, using plant medicine.
Who would someone use an herbal abortion over medical abortions?
There are many reasons someone would choose an herbal abortion. Some people feel that the experience is more spiritual because of the relationship they have with plants. Others appreciate that herbal abortions take more time (up to 3 weeks) and they feel that medical abortions happen too quickly and this feels jarring. Other people do not have access to medical abortions because of cost, distance or legal status. Others have a desire to feel connected to the long lineage of herbal abortion practice that is present in almost every culture around the world, prior to industrialized western medicine. Others simply would prefer to have an abortion in the safety and comfort of their own home, or in the environment of their own choice. And still others wish to avoid medical doctors because of the ways they have been treated by them. Or because they are concerned about accumulating trauma and having very little control over a medical abortion procedure performed by a doctor.
Do they even work?
Yes they can work, when they are performed correctly. It is very difficult to get accurate stats on the efficacy of herbal abortion. Studies vary widely and so does anecdotal evidence. This is understandable when you consider how this work is often done in shadows and with limited accurate instructions. Many people who have successful herbal abortions never report that information to health practitioners. When performed correctly an herbal abortion has somewhere between a 40 and 80% effectiveness rate, depending on what source you look to. They are much more like to be effective if they take place within the first 6 weeks of pregnancy, are timed with the person’s natural cycle (to expel the fetus when they would have otherwise been bleeding) and if the medicine is taken consistently for sometimes up to three weeks. Herbal abortions are a less viable option for pregnancy after 6 weeks, but they can be used in tandem with other methods to perform abortions and care for the well being of the pregnant person, after the 6 week window.
One barrier to effective herbal abortion is that many people who find themselves pregnant often don’t know how long they have been pregnant for. This lack of information can sometimes just be an accident and is often also tied to the ways in which we have been taught to disconnect from (and not see any worthwhile knowledge in) the natural rhythms of our bodies. Our culture largely values things like discretion when it comes to our moon cycle and this lends itself to us having less information about our bodies and in turn less power to control our fertility.
Aren’t herbal abortions just less effective alternatives to medical abortions? Why would someone choose that?Yes, medical abortions have a higher efficacy (ranging from 80 to 100% depending on the strategy implemented), but they also can carry side effects that many people would prefer to avoid. Medical abortions often happen in environments (clinics and hospitals) that many people have complex trauma histories in. And there are people who would prefer a medical abortion who just can’t get one. Many people (yes.. even in Canada) face tremendous barriers to accessing abortion care. Where I live the nearest abortion clinic is 2.5 hours away by car. You need a battery of tests before you can book an abortion and they only book appointments every two weeks. And that’s if you have access to Canadian health care, which many people do not for various reasons. I live rurally, but the circumstances in my community are not unusual. Not by a long shot. Though we have free health care in Canada, that doesn’t mean there aren’t gaps to the care we provide, or totally valid reasons for wanting to seek “alternative” care.
*The notion of herbal abortion being alternative care is a funny one. Herbal abortions were actually the standard of care for thousands of years. Medical abortions are a relatively new phenomenon in comparison.*
But don’t herbal abortions just make you have a miscarriage from making you sick? That seems really dangerous.
It is true that if you dose your herbs too high too fast, then herbal abortions can make you sick. This could also be true of medical abortions as well. The poster has a list of possible complications to look out for. Anyone using the information on the poster is encouraged strongly (I’d say it’s a basic requirement before undergoing any kind of herbal treatment) to do research about their bodies, the contraindications of the herbs they choose to work with and see if they need to use caution with a particular herb, or perhaps not use it at all. One of the main things that leads to this misinformation, that herbal abortions just work by making you sick, is the idea that an abortion needs to happen quickly and therefore you need to dose heavily (which will make you sick). This is just not true. With herbal abortions slow and gentle is better. Herbal abortions can take up to three weeks to be effective and while they may create some symptoms like sweating and tiredness, they should leave the person undergoing the abortion in relatively stable health throughout. If this is not the case then the dose should be lowered or discontinued. Each of the herbs listed on the poster works on the body to perform a specific action (encourage bleeding, change hormone balances, soften the cervix). It is these actions that cause the abortion, not poisoning. If you are being poisoned by an herbal abortion your dose is too high, period.
If you have an herbal abortion can you not use another kind of abortion also if it doesn’t work? Are you stuck with the pregnancy if an herbal abortion fails?
The short answer is no, you are not stuck with the pregnancy if an herbal abortion fails. Herbal abortions are most effective in the first 6 weeks of pregnancy. If you try an herbal abortion and it doesn’t work there is still lots of time to try other methods.
It is very common for herbal abortions to create what are called incomplete abortions. This means that the pregnancy has ended but the fetus has not been expelled from the body. When this happens you can pair herbs to soften the cervix with misoprostol to expel the fetus. Misoprostol is a very affordable medical abortion strategy that is commonly used by doctors. Some people choose to wait and have their body naturally expel the fetus, which it will often do on it’s own when given enough time. Many doctors and midwives will advise against this choice, but ultimately it is the choice of the pregnant person to wait, or have the fetus removed some other way. On the other hand, when an herbal abortion has not succeeded at ending a pregnancy, misoprostol can also be used (up to 13 weeks) to end a pregnancy and expel the fetus. It has about a 85% effectiveness rating. If all of these methods still do not work, which is unlikely but possible, surgical, menstrual extraction (if you are still within the 6 week window) and aspiration options are still available. Some of these can be done at home, some must be done in a clinic or hospital. Generally that later the pregnancy is left, the less options the pregnant person has to end it safely.
Many herbs used in herbal abortion are teratogenic, meaning they may cause birth defects if the pregnancy continues after an abortion attempt. It is possible to create an herbal brew that is not teratogenic, if there is a chance the person will want to continue the pregnancy if an herbal abortion fails, but this formula will most likely have a lower efficacy as it won’t achieve all three necessary actions of an effective herbal abortion formula. Further, our views regarding humans with “birth defects” is often deeply and seamlessly rooted in ableist notions. The notions deserve to be reflected on more deeply than many birthing humans and health care providers usually have a practice of doing.
If herbal abortions work then why do so many midwives, doctors and herbalists say they don’t or advise people against using them?
I think there are many reasons for this. The main one is misinformation and misinterpretations of history. From my perspective, based on all the research and learning I’ve done, I think it’s important to know that herbal abortions were the primary method of care for thousands of years – way longer than medical abortions.
I won’t go into too as much detail as I could about this here, but it’s important to understand that pregnant people and healers (of various genders) have held fertility control skills in communities all across the world for thousands of years. Often these skills were/are shared orally, through apprenticeships or within families. As capitalism was built and colonization spread across the world, healers who had the ability to help pregnant people control their fertility became a direct threat to the state and church. This is why so many midwives and humans who chose to take decisive action regarding their fertility were killed during the witch hunts: because having power over fertility is a threat to a state that has an imperative to produce as many labour producing beings as possible.
As the modern medical system was developed it was largely controlled by men, many of whom had very little skills with regard to fertility. Doctors often went to folk healers for information when they were stumped on how to care for women who were pregnant or experiencing complications or miscarriages. After the witch hunts and as the medical system came to power, herbal remedies were still very popular and were some of the most widely sold medicines in apothecaries, even though much of this was done covertly. Rarely were the medicines called abortifacients, but rather they were named emmenagogues or menstrual regulators.
As the information regarding abortion and fertility control became more and more elusive doctors began providing more and more abortions, often illegally and often in very coercive and violent ways. As all of this was happening as laws began appearing throughout the world making abortion illegal and this further drove abortion work (both skilled and unskilled – well practiced and harmful) underground. Many desperate pregnant people turned to unregulated and improperly labeled herbal abortion recipes – some of which worked and some of which were quack medicine. There was much underground organizing and skill sharing and many abortions were provided safely and hid from the state, while many were provided unsafely and were severely punished by the state – unless you were a doctor and you could get away with it.
As activists came to bring abortion work above ground and started fighting to have the work be legalized, a demonization of underground abortion work was used to justify legalizing medical abortion. This rhetoric was often written into laws by doctors and was used to increase their scope of care, thus granting them greater powers and greater legitimacy (much of which was not deserved).
Now much of our herbal abortion information has been so deeply driven underground, intentionally shrouded in mystery to avoid punishment from the state, and stigmatized for political aims that it feels nearly impossible to find information that is accurate. Many health care providers have been caught up in this history and they often are totally unaware of the massive biases and blindspots they carry that stretch all the way back to the burning times and the birth of capitalism. The goal of stigmatizing herbal abortions was to make us scared of our potential to care for ourselves and each other. The powers that be wanted to decrease our trust in the plant world as natural allies. It is a campaign of intentional disempowerment that many, if not all of us, still carry the wounds from today.
This is why I (and many others) do this work. Because we want to heal those wounds. And I want to offer information that is accurate as a form of empowerment for pregnant people and their caretakers. I see this work as a kind of harm reduction and as a calling back to my ancestors of struggle for guidance.
If you don’t believe me and want to do your own research I would strongly encourage you to do so, but please view your sources with a critical eye. History is often told by the victors and keeping this information in the shadows works to reinforce existing power structures. I learned much of this information in trusted-access workshop spaces, Rain Crow’s Burning Times course and from books like Caliban and The Witch, Eve’s Herbs, Transgender Warriors and WitchCraft Medicine.
But people have gone to jail for doing home abortions right? Will that happen to me if I use an herbal abortion?
Yes – many people have gone to jail for aborting pregnancies, especially if you take a historical perspective on this work. And the risk of repercussions in America or places with strict laws against abortion is much higher. Even with this being the case though, much underground abortion work is happening all over the world, because abortion care is a necessary part of any properly functioning health care system and where there are gaps in formal system, people will rise to fill them. Sometimes this is done skillfully and other times not. I would rather it be done skillfully and for that to happen, people need accurate information.
That being said, in Canada we don’t actually have any abortion laws on the books, because when we repealed our abortion law we replaced it with nothing. So really we exist in a legal grey zone. From what I understand no one has gone to jail for practicing an herbal abortion since the laws were changed here in the 80’s. If there were massive complications (which is possible but unlikely) you might face charges for the harm done in that case, but that is a very worst case scenario.
There are lots of people on the internet who tried herbal abortions and it didn’t work. Isn’t this just giving people false hope?
Actually I feel that this work directly responds to all of those voices. The reason most herbal abortions don’t work is because people do have the information needed to practice them effectively. If all of those people had correct information (including possible risks and best practices) the efficacy of their abortions would be much higher. There would still be some people who would need additional types of interventions, but many many more people would be having successful herbal abortions (as was the case for centuries prior to the rise of the medical industrial complex) with few complications.
But haven’t people died from herbal abortions? Pennroyal has killed people right?
Again, this all comes back to information. The people who have died from pennyroyal abortions (which from my understanding is 2 people) used pennyroyal essential oil. This is an understandable and totally preventable mistake (and one I address directly in the poster). I want people to do this work safely, not to cause more harm by doing it. When people are desperate and have very few options and limited access to information they are way more likely to do things to their bodies that might result in harm. We see this dynamic play out in places where abstinence is taught instead of sex ed – the rates of unwanted pregnancy go way up. We need to give people more information, not less of it.
Aren’t there a lot of precautions people should be taking before they do an herbal abortion? Do you talk about those? Can someone really do this safely at home?
The poster I created offers information regarding complications. Ayone planning on doing a home abortion needs to do more research regarding their own body and the contraindications for each plant. I say that on the poster. I would also encourage people to seek out the counsel of herbalists, midwives or anyone who is willing to help harm reduce their choice to seek out an herbal abortion.
And yes – I fully believe that someone can do this safely in their home, because many people do. And have done so for thousands of year. There is always risks of complication but this goes down as access to information goes up. Risk also goes down when this work doesn’t need to be hidden in the shadows, which is why it’s important that we support people who are going through abortions, no matter what method they choose. And, I think it’s important to keep in mind that medical abortions also have risks of side effects, the possibility of incurring lasting trauma, and the various dangers that are present in any medical procedure. We don’t need to look at this simply as a binary us and them issue. Herbal abortions have upsides and strengths and so do medical abortions. I would like to see a world where these types of care can work together, rather than be antagonizing and stigmatizing towards each other.
Are you an expert? Where did you even learn this from?
No. I am not an expert. What I am is a nerd. A complete and totally unapologetic herbal abortion nerd. I’m also an herbalist and an at home abortion advocate. I have read many books, studied and practiced herbalism for 5 years, participated in several workshops and online classes, and I’ve helped myself and friends with tracking our cycles and controlling our fertility. I also believe I have done this work in previous lives, because of interactions I have had with plants where I knew I was supposed to harvest them and I didn’t know why. Upon researching the plants (whose name I had no idea of until doing that research) I discovered this plant was a popular abortion remedy in the places I have ancestral ties to. This work lives in my bones and my spirit. It is alive and hidden carefully in my ancestry. If you would like guidance with how to do this learning yourself, I would recommend the books I listed earlier. I would also recommend Natural Liberty by the Sage Femme Collective. And if I know you and have a trusted relationship with you I can recommend some trusted-access learning spaces that deeply enriched my learning on this topic. There is also a possibility in the future that this information will be offered as an online course.
What gives you the right to share this information?
Well, most of it I learned in books, which I have listed and you can look at yourself. And any information I have learned in trusted-access learning space, that I’m sharing here, I was given permission to do so from my teacher.
Why you are you selling these posters for money?
Simple, because I don’t have enough money to print and distribute them for free. And I also believe I deserve to be paid for my work as a community educator. I can’t do this work if I can’t pay my bills, much as I wish that wasn’t the reality. Also I feel that I would rather sell people the physical poster than just post the info online for free. I feel this way because I think the poster works to literally bring the work out of the shadows. It’s pretty – it’s meant to be shared and displayed. Also it comes with instructions for use and potential complications to watch out for. It’s a whole package, not just a simple internet blurb. It’s designed to be shared and help create relationships and conversation amongst the people who purchase and display it.