Aside from the potentially adverse side effects, trying certain unproven herbal remedies may also cause women to further delay medical care or be dishonest with emergency physicians, which can put them in even more danger, Dr. Romm said. “The reality is, it’s not going to work a lot of the time, and so you’re still going to have to potentially get medical treatment,” she said. “But now, when you go and get the treatment, you’ve tried to ingest something that is not going to be seen favorably or understood by the medical community, and it increases your risk of not being treated the way you want to be treated.”
The allure of ancient remedies
For centuries, before the advent of surgical and medical abortions or birth control options, women have turned to herbs to control their reproduction. Historians have discovered references to abortifacients and herbal birth control methods in ancient texts from China, India and throughout the African and Latin American continents.
In Europe, the distinctly prickly “savin tree was the abortifacient of choice,” said Londa Schiebinger, a professor of the history of science at Stanford University. “You could usually identify a midwife by seeing that tree right outside her house.” And during the colonization of the West Indies, enslaved women used herbal abortifacients as a way to avoid giving birth to offspring who would also be enslaved, according to Dr. Schiebinger’s research.
It wasn’t until the 15th century that authorities in the Western world really started cracking down on abortifacients and, historians have noted, accusing midwives who would have provided herbal reproductive care of witchcraft and persecuting them.
But even those who respect and honor the history of abortifacients have warned against turning to them in this time. “I am not taking away from the importance of using abortifacient herbs and emergency contraceptive herbs because our ancestors were doing it,” Leslie Rae, an herbalist, said in a video on TikTok. But, she added, “when you get online and you’re telling people, ‘Oh, you can take X, Y and Z to end a pregnancy,’ do you know how to prepare that herb? Do you know how to dose it? Do you know what parts of the plant to use?”
“TikTok witches and fake herbalists: Please stop giving people advice on abortifacient herbs,” she said.