FULL CLAIM: Plants such as pennyroyal, blue and black cohosh or mugwort are an alternative method for abortion
On 24 June 2022 the U.S. Supreme Court of Justice overturned the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling, putting an end to the constitutional protection of abortion rights and enabling each state to set its own laws regulating abortions.
As more than 10 states have abortion “trigger” laws that immediately enacted a near-complete or complete ban on abortion following the overturn of Roe, and more states will enact such laws in the future, many users have turned to social media, discussing alternative, homemade abortion methods. Some examples are these Instagram posts which went viral, listing various plants and claiming that they can induce abortions in the form of herbal teas or ointments.
These posts usually warned users that those plants “must be avoided during pregnancy” as they may result in pregnancy loss. However, the timing of these posts’ publication—shortly after the overturn of Roe— and some of the language might suggest that these posts are covertly promoting these plants as a possible alternative for abortion, presumably since herbs are less likely to be as regulated as abortion procedures and thus easier to obtain. The hints are subtle. For instance, the caption in one of the posts concluded “Keep learning about these & other herbs you may have access to that cause these situations. I mean how else will we avoid accidental miscarriages? You’re smart enough to do this too”. Another stated “do with this information what you will”.
Whatever the motivation of these posts, it’s critical for users to be aware that the information in these posts are likely to cause harm, as these aren’t safe and effective abortion methods. Many of these plants are highly toxic; furthermore, their effectiveness at inducing abortions isn’t supported by scientific evidence.
The posts listed several plants supposedly able to terminate pregnancy, such as pennyroyal, black and blue cohosh, mugwort, rue, Queen Anne’s lace and parsley. Medical experts, toxicologists and obstetricians-gynecologists (OB/GYN), warned that infusions from these plants aren’t a proven method of terminating pregnancy.
First, there are little to no robust data showing that consuming these plants effectively induce abortion. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN, highlighted that “there is no evidence [pennyroyal] is actually an effective abortifacient”. Data on the effectiveness are equally lacking for other plants such as mugwort, rue and cohosh, she added.
Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist at Case Western Reserve University also told Associated Press that “There are no herbal remedies, period, that are safe and effective for inducing an abortion or preventing pregnancy”.
If a woman experiences a miscarriage after consuming some of these plants, it is generally because the plants’ toxicity produce serious illness. Gunter explained that “either the fetus or placenta are affected and fetal death occurs, eventually triggering either labor or an infection that then hopefully triggers labor. Or the pregnant person becomes so ill, [for example with] liver failure, that abortion results, either because of fetal demise due to insufficient oxygen or perhaps because the blood loses its ability to clot and bleeding begins behind the placenta”.
In other words, these plants can terminate a pregnancy, but this is a side effect of the toxicity, and obtaining such a result requires a person to also run a high risk of complications and death. Marino explained: “[C]ertainly if a pregnant person poisons themself to the extent of severe organ failure, there’s a good chance that they will lose their pregnancy”.
Indeed, social media posts claiming that these plants can induce an abortion have gone viral, setting off alarm bells among medical professionals, who warn that most of them are likely to cause serious health problems. One of the often-cited plants in such posts is pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium). Marino and Josh Trebach, another medical toxicologist, explained on Twitter that it contains a substance called pulegone that causes liver and kidney damage. “There is no safe amount of pennyroyal that humans can consume,” Marino added.
The primary component of pennyroyal products is pulegone, which is also used as an “essential oil” and flavor/scent additive (it’s minty). Pulegone is metabolized to multiple toxic compounds and there is no safe amount of pulegone humans can ingest. These are all v bad molecules. pic.twitter.com/XaXOp3DBbf
— Ryan Marino MD (@RyanMarino) June 26, 2022
Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) is a plant that has a pleasant mintlike🍬 odor. It has been used historically as an abortifacient for centuries. The plant can be concentrated into an oil called pennyroyal oil. The plant, and especially the oil, contain the toxin ☠️PULEGONE☠️. pic.twitter.com/vyq7zngEIc
— Josh Trebach, MD (@jtrebach) June 7, 2022
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is also commonly mentioned as an abortifacient plant. While mugwort has been used in traditional medicine, it contains a neurotoxic substance called thujone, also found in absinthe. While thujone can be tolerated at low doses, homemade preparation such as mugwort tea have an uncontrolled amount of thujone, contrary to pharmaceutical preparations where doses are carefully controlled. A high enough dose of thujone can cause seizures that are difficult to treat, according to Marino.
Trebach also warned that blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) causes vomiting, seizures, coma and even death.
Symptoms of Blue Cohosh toxicity include vomiting, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, salivation, dysrhythmias, ataxia, confusion, tremors, muscle fasiculations, seizures, lethargy, and coma.🙁🙁 None of these are good and can lead to DEATH. pic.twitter.com/HAgOJO3kTg
— Josh Trebach, MD (@jtrebach) June 29, 2022
The herb rue (Ruta graveolens) causes equally severe symptoms, such as vomiting, hemorrhage, and multisystem organ failure, according to Gunter.
Altogether, this demonstrates that so-called abortifacient herbal teas are neither safe nor effective at inducing abortion. When miscarriage occurs, it is primarily a consequence of severe illness brought on by the plants’ toxicity. Those who resort to using these plants to induce an abortion may well succeed, although running the risks of complications and possibly even death in the process.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved mifepristone and misoprostol for safe non-surgical termination of early pregnancy (70 days or less since the first day of the last menstrual period). However, the overturn of Roe is likely to make access to medical abortion extremely complicated for many women. Speaking to Bloomberg, Trebach advised that those facing difficulties in obtaining medical care can reach out for support through their health provider or vetted organizations.
- 1 – Di Lorenzo (2018) Identification and Quantification of Thujone in a Case of Poisoning Due to Repeated Ingestion of an Infusion of Artemisia Vulgaris L. Journal of Food Science.