herbal abortions: questions, concerns and clarity

below is a list of common concerns and questions regarding
herbal abortion. I wrote these as I was coming up against frequent debates regarding the educational herbal abortion poster I made, which is available for sale/digital download in my shop. i also offer a poster about herbal contraception.

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. it is also possible, and i would argue more effective, to prevent pregnancy through herbal contraception.

why would someone choose an herbal abortion over medical abortion?

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 colonial western medicine. others simply would prefer to have an abortion in the safety and comfort of their own home, or in an environment of their own choice. and still others wish to avoid medical doctors because of harmful treatment they have received from medical institutions. others are concerned about accumulating trauma and are wary of having very little control over a medical abortion procedure performed by a doctor.

all that to be said i don't want to suggest a binary here. many people would be best served by an approach that allows for plant medicine and western medicine to be interwoven to create the best possible care. it is possible to use plants to support pre and post abortion care, in combination with medical procedure. i would love to see a world where doctors and nurse could work more with doulas, midwives and herbalists to create a wider range of choices for people seeking abortion care.

do herbal abortions even work?

yes they can work, when they are performed correctly. it is very difficult to get accurate statistics on the efficacy of herbal abortion. studies vary widely and so does anecdotal evidence. this is understandable when you consider that this work is often done in shadows and with limited access to accurate instructions, which is a result of stigma. many people who perform successful herbal abortions never report that information to health practitioners for fear of not being believe or fear of being punished in some way.

an herbal abortion is much more like to be effective if it takes place within the first 6 weeks of pregnancy, is timed with the person’s natural cycle (to expel the fetus when they would have otherwise been bleeding) and if the remedy is taken consistently for 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 after the 6 week window, as well as care for the well being of the pregnant person.

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 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?

medical abortions have a higher efficacy rate (ranging from 80 to 98% depending on the strategy implemented), and 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. lgbtq people, sex workers, folks of colour and other marginalized groups tend to have a distrust of the medical system, often for valid and complex reasons.

it is possible to perform a medical abortion at home, with or without the assistance of herbs, which would increase the agency of the people involved, but this exists in a legal grey zone (in canada, and is illegal in many parts of america) and is often not accessible to most people seeking abortion care. 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 use to live the nearest abortion clinic was two and a half hours away by car. you needed a battery of tests before you could book an abortion and they only booked appointments every two weeks. and that’s if you have access to canadian health care, which many people do not for various reasons. the community i'm referring to here was rural, but the circumstances were not unusual. not by a long shot. though we have free health care in canada, that doesn’t mean there aren’t gaps in the care the state provides, 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. again, i don't want to encourage a binary here, i just want people to consider all the valid reasons someone may want to pursue with or instead of medical options.

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 or too fast, then herbal abortions can make you sick. feeling sick and having side effects also happens with medical abortion. that being said there are risks involved. the poster has a list of possible complications to look out for.

one of the main things that leads to the spread of 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.

also it's important to remember that with medical abortion - whether it be surgical or medication based - many people do feel sick. often very sick. this does not inherently mean the abortion is unsafe. abortion can be an intense process. it's not necessarily easy on the body. it makes sense to feel unwell, to be in pain, to be working through the process of letting go of a pregnancy, no matter which route you choose.

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 common for herbal abortions to create what are called incomplete abortions. this can mean 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 and reproductive care providers around the world. 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. a properly administered misoprostol abortion has an 85% effectiveness rating, based on the studies i've read. 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 would be better accessed (if that is possible) in a clinic or hospital.

generally the later the pregnancy is left, the less options the pregnant person has to end it safely, so time really is of the essence.

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 the pregnant person wants to continue the pregnancy if an herbal abortion fails. all that to be said, our views regarding humans with “birth defects” is often deeply and seamlessly rooted in ableist notions. these 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 modern medical abortions.

i won’t go into 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. if people could stop having babies, then the church, state, and owners of industry would lose workers and followers. this is why so many midwives and humans who chose to take decisive action regarding their fertility and the fertility of their communities 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 people who were pregnant or experiencing complications or miscarriages. after the witch hunts and as the medical system came to power, herbal remedies for abortion and contraception 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, 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 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 and products - some of which worked and some of which were quack medicine. there was much underground organizing and skill sharing. many abortions were provided safely and hidden from the state, while many were provided unsafely and many more were severely punished by the state - unless you were a doctor and you could get away with it. much of the underground abortion provision was provided by organized crime rings, and these abortions were typically dangerous and deeply exploitative.

demonizing people who perform abortions is not a new thing. as activists came to bring abortion work above ground and started fighting to have the work 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.

now, much of our herbal abortion information has been so deeply driven underground, intentionally shrouded in mystery to avoid punishment from the state. many health care providers have been caught up in this history and they often are totally unaware of the massive biases and blind spots they carry that stretch all the way back to the burning times and the birth of capitalism. the goal of stigmatizing herbal and at-home 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. this 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. we aim 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 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 those with systemic power. keeping this information in the shadows works to reinforce existing power structures. i learned much of this information in trusted-access workshop spaces, from 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?

many people have gone to jail for aborting pregnancies, especially if you take a historical perspective on this work. 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. where there are gaps in a formal system, people will rise to fill them. sometimes this is done skilfully and other times not. i would rather it be done skilfully, 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. this means we exist in a legal grey zone. from what I understand no one has gone to jail for performing an herbal abortion since the laws were changed here in the 80’s. if there were massive complications (which is possible but unlikely, though the chance of this goes up the further along in a pregnancy you are) 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? 

i feel that this work directly responds to all of those voices. the reason most herbal abortions don’t work is because people don't 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.

all that to be said, the best way to use herbs, in my opinion, is as contraception. using herbs in the desperate moment of an emergency often does not give them the time or timing for them to really shine and support as best they can. preparedness is a key ingredient to herbs being a helpful ally in this process. that being said, herbs can always be a helpful ally in pre and post abortion care, even if they are not the main tool to create the miscarriage.

in an ideal world i would love to see doctors and medical care providers working with herbalists, midwives, and doulas to offer a holistic and wide range of care to people seeking abortion care. i think we would work more strongly and effectively together. and the reality is that underground abortion care providers have a lot to lose if they are out about their work. that power imbalance makes it challenging for relationships of cooperation to form and flourish.

but haven’t people died from herbal abortions? pennyroyal has killed people right?

again, this all comes back to information. the people who have died from pennyroyal abortions (which from my understanding is 6 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, 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? 

the poster i created offers information regarding complications.

and yes - someone can do this safely in their home, because many people do and have for thousands of years. there are always risks of complication, that is true with any type of abortion. and, the risk goes down as access to information goes up. risk also goes down when this work isn't 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.

i think it’s important to keep in mind that medical abortions also have risks and side effects, including the possibility of lasting trauma and the various dangers that are present in any medical procedure. we don’t need to look at this simply as an us and them issue (again, i'd like to dispel the binary here as much as possible). 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?

i am not an expert. i'm a curious learning who enjoys sharing my process. i'm a person who used herbs to effect and regulate my moon cycle for years. i’m also an herbalist and an at-home abortion advocate. i have read many books, studied and practiced herbalism for years, participated in several workshops and online classes, and i’ve helped myself and my community with tracking our cycles and preventing pregnancy through contraception. 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 names I had no idea of until doing that research) i discovered they were popular abortion remedies 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.

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. as for any information i have learned in trusted-access learning space and share here, i was given permission to do so from my teachers.

why you are you selling these posters for money?

the reality of capitalism dictates that i can not do this work for free. i need to be paid for my work as a community educator for it be sustainable for me. and, the posters are available on a pay-what-you-can/what-its-worth basis so they are accessible to anyone needing this information.

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