Taking unregulated herbal cocktails to induce an abortion can be dangerous, obstetricians say. But prescriptions for self-inflicted “miscarriages” — some with potentially toxic ingredients — have been circulating online since the Supreme Court ruled Roe v. Wade fell.
After the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade on June 24 — removing federal protections on abortion rights — posts circulated on the Internet detailing home remedies and herbal concoctions they claimed would cause “miscarriage.”
Many of the posts — circulating on major platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok — contain potentially dangerous ingredients without specifying dosage amounts, giving the impression that abortions can be induced using herbs.
One Instagram post featured a list of homeopathic ingredients and then said with a winking emoji: “I mean, how else are we going to avoid accidental miscarriages? You are smart enough to do the same.”
“The myth of safe herbal abortion is pervasive,” said Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN who has written books on women’s health, in a Substack post dedicated to the topic. “It’s a combination of two fallacies that appeal to a belief in the magical power of ancient remedies and that natural is best.”
But she said: “There are no safe, effective methods of inducing an abortion using botanicals.”
While some of the preparations could lead to an abortion, this could just be a by-product of poisoning in the woman’s body, she explained, since “mall herbal abortifacients are literally poisons.”
For example, one of the most widely advertised plants is pennyroyal, a species of mint that was introduced to the United States from Europe. As with many persistent claims on the internet, there is a grain of truth here. Pennyroyal has historically been associated with abortions dating back to ancient Greece.
However, according to the National Institutes of Health, there is insufficient evidence that pennyroyal can actually cause an abortion. In fact, the NIH’s National Library of Medicine says it’s probably safe to take pennyroyal oil because it can cause “severe liver, kidney, and nervous system damage.”
In addition, the NIH says, “There is some evidence that pennyroyal oil can cause abortions by causing the uterus to contract. But the dose needed for an abortion could kill the mother or cause lifelong kidney and liver damage.”
Another plant that has made the lists on social media is parsley, which may sound harmless but can be toxic when consumed in concentrated doses, and inclusion of which is sometimes recommended. A woman in Argentina reportedly died of septic shock and infection after trying to terminate a pregnancy with parsley in 2018.
In general, doctors and health professionals recommend using reviewed, regulated medications for abortions. According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, medical abortions, performed by taking medication rather than through a physical procedure, accounted for about 28% of early abortions in 2016. They are commonly performed by taking two medications – mifepristone and misoprostol – that can be performed at home.
“People have been self-administering their abortions for decades with the support of community organizations and medical experts,” said Dr. Nisha Verma, a fellow at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, in a statement from the organization to FactCheck.org.
“We’ve seen people safely self-perform their abortions with drugs like misoprostol. However, some people may also turn to unsafe abortion methods when they feel they have no other choice or based on information they gather on social media,” she said.
“It’s important that people understand that social media posts can be unreliable and sometimes spread misinformation. Misinformation can be harmful because it can lead people to attempt unsafe ways to terminate their pregnancy, potentially exposing them to serious physical harm. While people can safely perform their own abortions, spreading misinformation about unsafe abortion methods is incredibly dangerous,” Verma said.
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations work with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. You can find our previous stories here. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.
Kiely, Eugene, and Lori Robertson. “What happens if Roe v. Wade is lifted?” FactCheck.org. Updated June 24, 2022.
Gunter, Jen. “Don’t take TikTok’s advice on herbal abortifacients.” Substack. June 29, 2022.
Nelson, Sarah. “Persephone’s Seed: Abortifacients and Contraceptives in Ancient Greek Medicine and Their Recent Scientific Evaluation.” 2009
National Health Institute. National Library of Medicine. pennyroyal. Updated February 13, 2020.
Ciganda, Carmen and Amalia Laborde. “Herbal Infusions Used for Induced Abortion.” Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology. December 5, 2003.
Brennan, David. “Woman dies after using parsley to induce miscarriage, first death since Argentina Senate rejected abortion law.” Newsweek. August 15, 2018.
Kaiser Family Foundation. “The Availability and Use of Medical Abortion.” April 6, 2022.
Jatlaoui, Tara, et al. “Abortion Surveillance – United States, 2016.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. November 29, 2019.
Verma, Nisha. Fellow, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. E-mail statement to FactCheck.org. July 1, 2022.