Oops All Poison: The Internet and Bad Herbal Abortion Advice

One of herbal abortions most dangerous pitfalls is the misinformation flooding the internet. Google “Herbal Abortion” and pages of websites, blogs and articles come up, each claiming to be the herbal abortion expert[…]. The internet has emboldened many frustrated woman to believe that she could easily do-it-herself. Misinformation is often what leads to instances of accidental poisoning, under dosing (leading to issues during pregnancy) and death, in certain cases.

Maya Lewis, Drink Me and Abort Your Baby: The Herbal Abortion Tea, City University of New York Academic Works

It’s a Tuesday in The Great Crumble, and as the political – apparently even cognitive – division in the United States deepens, with it comes another atrocity: The US Supreme Court is prepared to overturn Roe. vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established that the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant person’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction.

Naturally, conservatives who claim to want small government have opted in favor of overwhelming government intrusion, on strictly religious grounds, as long as it unduly punishes people they don’t like, and who claim to want government transparency, now howling for blood over the draft leak of this decision. These are not people who should be in charge of anything and not people to whose rule we will acquiesce. I digress.

Everyone who had access to safe, clinical abortions still has them today. There’s no telling what chaos might manifest as a result of this, and whether this will even come to fruition, but even in the worst case, it will still be weeks, or months before abortion access is restricted anywhere (and it won’t be restricted everywhere). To be clear, this is a crisis and a human rights emergency. But it is also creating panic, and panic is a breeding ground for misinformation and opportunists.

The least informed people are usually first in line to posture as an authority, whether disingenuously or through good old Dunning-Krugerism, because people overwhelmed with fear and immediate concerns often don’t have the background to immediately know better, don’t have the bandwidth or resources to independently verify every claim someone makes, and mostly will just recirculate bad information without much skepticism at all.

Worse, once someone disseminates bad information, they are very unlikely to accept information that contradicts it, causing them to double down and become hostile. Once installed, informational malware is very difficult to remove from discourse.

Don’t Drink Poison

The fact is, phytomedicine is incredibly complex, and most people who are talking about it don’t know what they’re doing. Trying to figure out if someone does often requires enough background that, if you had it, you wouldn’t be looking for their advice in the first place. With the entire field of herbal medicine completely unregulated, and most certifications being completely meaningless, how do you know who to listen to?

The short answer is: you don’t. That is exactly why you need to bring a ton of skepticism to any claim regarding plant medicine you see online. I see people who I instantly identify as untrustworthy making claims. I see sources that I would think were quite reputable circulate misinformation; claims based on studies that were flawed or inconclusive, debunked myths, whole fictions, sometimes. It’s everywhere.

There is no guild, no single certificate program (not even Ivy League ones) guarantees you’re talking to a competent practitioner. But there are some red flags you can watch for:

An abundance of confidence. Anyone actually engaged in the praxis of plant medicine is aware of just how much they don’t know. They might be very confident in what they do know, but a competent practitioner is going to be constantly learning and researching. Be very wary of herbalists who pretend to know it all; a self-aware practitioner often says, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”

Specious or no qualifications at all. Even the most reputable certifications don’t mean much on their own. Certificates distributed by online herbal schools mean even less, and certificates distributed by individual practitioners mean absolutely nothing. Many herbalists simply try to purchase credentials in lieu of the difficult and often bone-dry work of learning craft. Beware of “Grandpa Joes” who only have enthusiasm for fun things, but can’t be bothered with the difficult, boring, or thankless work.

Consider the source. Competent herbalists show their work. If you’re getting your information from memes or graphics you see on Instagram or elsewhere, or the person cited (if there is any) or posting them doesn’t have credentials that satisfy you, don’t just accept it as true, and definitely don’t pass it on.

Most of the plans you’re going to see work based on systemic toxicity, whether the person making the claim understands that or not: the idea being that by poisoning yourself, you also poison your fetus, killing it, and hopefully not you in the process. You’re expected to take this kind of advice from people buying qualifications on Etsy.

The following isn’t an exhaustive list, but an excerpt from a chapter of a book on my own shelf, Essential Oil Safety (Second Edition), 2014, by Robert Tisserand, Rodney Young PhD, that hopefully at least illustrates what the discourse around abortifacient safety should look like:

One concern about essential oils is that some could cause abortion. There is a popular belief among aromatherapists that emmenagogic essential oils are unsafe during pregnancy, because they might lead to miscarriage. Since many essential oils have been labeled as emmenagogues in the popular literature this has led to some being flagged as dangerous in pregnancy. Whether or not these oils encourage menstruation, there is often no evidence that they are abortifacient in the amounts used in aromatherapy.

The term ‘emmenagogue’ is used to describe substances that promote menstrual bleeding. A large number of plants are classified in this way, although their mechanisms of action are not well understood. Potentially, they could involve mimicry or antagonism of one or more of the hormones discussed above.

Battaglia (1997 p. 132) lists cedarwood (type unspecified), clary sage, jasmine, juniper, marjoram, myrrh, peppermint, rose and rosemary as emmenagogues, and as being unsafe to use in pregnancy. Davis (1988) lists clary sage, cypress, lavender, marjoram, peppermint and rose. However, as will be seen below, only massive quantities of relatively toxic essential oils are able to induce abortion. Almost all of the alleged emmenagogic or uterine stimulant essential oils either do not have such an effect (there is often no basis for these claims) or if they do, it is not powerful enough to cause miscarriage. In some cases it is the whole herb that is classed as an emmenagogue, and an assumption has been made that the essential oil possesses the same activity.

Franchomme & Pénöel (1990) put forward the hypothesis that all essential oils containing ketones are both neurotoxic and abortifacient. Consequently, they cite dozens of essential oils as being abortifacient, and therefore unsafe in pregnancy, such as caraway (carvone), davana (davanone), peppermint eucalyptus (piperitone), rosemary verbenone CT (verbenone), taget (tagetone), turmeric (turmerone) and zdravetz (germacrone). The basis for the hypothesis is not clear, but may be due to the fact that, for example, pulegone is an abortifacient ketone, and that camphor, pinocamphone and thujone are all neurotoxic ketones. However, to deduce from this that all ketones are abortifacient has no scientific basis. A massive oral dose of β-ionone (1,000 mg/kg) did cause a high proportion of resorptions in rats. However, at 250, 500 or 750 mg/kg, it attenuated cyclophosphamide-induced embryolethality and teratogenicity (Gomes-Carneiro et al 2003).

Savin, tansy, juniper, pennyroyal and rue5 have all been considered abortifacient at one time or another (Macht 1913), and the whole herbs may be active. However, work using the isolated human uterus shows that the essential oils of these plants have no direct action on uterine muscle (Macht 1913, 1921; Gunn 1921; Soares PM et al 2005). Furthermore, they do not tend to induce abortion by causing the death of the fetus (Datnow 1928; Renaux & La Barre 1941; Kong et al 1989). However, the fact that these oils do not stimulate the isolated human uterus does not in itself prove that they are not abortifacient. It is possible that constituents of the essential oils are metabolized in vivo to more toxic compounds. We know, for example, that (1R)-(+)-β-pulegone is metabolized to (6R)-(+)-menthofuran, increasing toxicity.

It would be nearly impossible in this limited space to address the science or even anecdotal viability of every plant you’re going to see. A good place to start is to Google [plant you see being posted] + “toxicity”. Then really look at the sources. Google the plant’s scientific name along with “risks”. Decide if this is something you think that you, or a desperate pregnant person, should be playing guessing games about. Decide if you trust this source to not destroy your kidneys or liver. Or, you know, when in doubt, just don’t accept it as true, and don’t share it.

So what do I actually do?

My partner in plant-based medicine, Vanessa White, and I graduated together from Cornell University’s Medicinal Plants certification program. That program, like every other one, has numerous flaws that have to be addressed both during and after the course, but it is ostensibly one of the most scientifically robust courses available (and that is more of an indictment than a compliment, really). The point being that we’re both obsessed with evidence-based plant medicine. It is far easier to tell you what not to do than it is what to do, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plants that can help you. It just isn’t pennyroyal, mugwort, rue, or whatever other neurotoxins are being paraded around for this purpose.

There are other avenues that plants work on besides systemic toxicity. We were already working on a comprehensive reproductive medicine course addressing not only abortifacients, but also hormone regulation and contraception as part of a much larger herbal medicine course. Clearly we have to move that information to the fore.

It bears repeating: the least informed people are usually the first and the loudest. Compiling responsible, evidence-based information and vetting it takes some time. It is something we can do quickly because we already have this information at our fingertips, and we have the tools to vet it with a sense of urgency. I wanted to, first, get everyone to slow down the spread of misinformation since that’s already happening.

Next, Vanessa is working on a thorough list, complete with methodology and specifics, of plants that can be used as abortifacients and other supplemental roles, without potentially killing you or destroying the rest of your body, and I will link that here as soon as it’s available.

Artwork courtesy of Bum Lung

Above all, we want all people to have access to safe abortions. Absolutely nothing about the above is intended to diminish or invalidate justifiable fear and outrage. However, it is our Luciferian praxis that knowledge is the bulwark against fear and the thing that keeps us from making existential mistakes and doing inadvertent harm during this and all other times of upheaval and upset. When coronavirus first emerged, we were on the front lines of trying to sort out helpful, life-saving information when it was needed most. This is no different. When things are hardest, and scariest, that is when we have to be at our most vigilant, our most rigorous.

Ignorance is a weakness exploited by the grifter and the oppressor alike and these types of exploiters see fear and ignorance being married together as the ideal situation. This is when people are most easily manipulated. We want you to remain safe and sovereign over your own body, and we will not let opportunists and oppressors exert power over you through your own ignorance.

Be safe. Ask questions. Be a lightbringer when the darkness closes in.

Jinx Strange is a perfumer, publisher and Archlector of the Luciferian Dominion. He holds certifications in Permaculture Design from Oregon State University, and Medicinal Plants from Cornell University.