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Fact check: How safe is an abortion with herbs?

Mugwort: A person picks the mugwort plant (Photo: F. Hecker/blickwinkel/picture alliance)

Parsley or papaya as an abortifacient? In social networks, users claim that women can have an abortion with plants. Is that really true? And is such a method safe at all? A fact check.

As a result of the US Supreme Court ruling on abortion law, around half of the states in the US could ban abortion in the future. And there are also some countries around the world, such as El Salvador, Egypt, Iraq or Madagascar, where abortion is illegal. Recently, there has been an increase in social networks, especially on TikTok and Instagram, advice on how women can supposedly have an abortion safely and even at home: with herbs such as parsley, black cohosh, and fleabane, for example, or with fruits such as papaya. As a mix or individually. But can such herbal remedies really cause an abortion? And how dangerous are they?

Claim: Claims about abortions such as these are currently circulating on social networks: ” Do you live in a state where abortion has only just been banned? Herbs also work as (abortion) medicine, ” writes a user on TikTok, for example, who tells her followers recommends mugwort, parsley or club moss in the comments.

DW fact check: misleading Women who try to have an abortion with herbs or plants drink them, for example, as tea, eat them, insert them vaginally or even intravenously. All of these methods have already been used, according to experts, and they are potentially dangerous. ” I can only warn every woman against taking such herbal products for an abortion because the effect is incalculable,” says Roland Seifert, head of the Institute for Pharmacology at the Medical University of Hanover, in a DW interview.

In fact, there are few studies that have adequately explored the effects of various herbs and plants as abortifacients. The reason for this is that many unintentionally pregnant women mix the herbs, the doses and period of ingestion often vary, and sometimes vaginal instruments are used, as a study by researchers at the University of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay shows. Sometimes herbal abortion does occur – but this comes with a high risk of death for the person performing the self-abortion. “There can be no safe abortion with herbal remedies,” confirms the pharmacist Larissa Leibrock-Plehn, who did her doctorate on the history of herbal abortion drugs, in the DW interview. “Either it is ineffective or dangerous in the right dosage.”

So herbal abortions count as unsafe abortions. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) , 45 percent of abortions worldwide are unsafe abortions. These are terminations that, among other things, take place without advice, are carried out by unskilled people, or are carried out incorrectly or unhygienically.

Attempted herbal abortions can result in death

The aforementioned study from Uruguay analyzed 86 case studies of herbal attempts to terminate pregnancies. The result: Some women suffered multiple organ failures after the experiments, which led to death. Others developed liver and blood disorders.

According to an older study by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta from 1980, there is also a risk that people for whom herbal abortion initially does not work take more and more herbs – and thus the risk of poisoning increases. The fetus can suffer health consequences even if it is not successfully aborted.

Nevertheless, there are users on the social networks who even name specific herbs and plants with which unintentionally pregnant women could carry out an abortion themselves at home. We took a closer look at four of them.

Parsely

Close-up of parsley (Photo: Silas Stein/dpa/picture alliance)
Parsley not only tastes good as a spice in soups but can also be dangerous if used incorrectly

Parsley, which is actually a spice used to decorate soups and dishes, is said to have an abortive effect, according to claims on social media. A study from Uruguay shows that parsley is often used as a herbal abortifacient – alone or in combination with other plants. Parsley contains apiol and myristicin – two substances that can be toxic.

The study documents cases in which parsley, together with other plants, led to multi-organ failure. If the spice is used vaginally, it can lead to bleeding because it is not sterile, warns pharmacologist Seifert.

In addition, ingredients in parsley could get into the circulation through injuries in the vagina – and thus lead to a large number of side effects. This can then lead to multi-organ, liver, kidney or cardiovascular failure. “You don’t even know how much of which active ingredient you’re adding, so the effect becomes unpredictable,” says Seifert.

Fleabane

Large Fleaweed in close-up (Photo: S. Derder/blickwinkel/picture alliance)
There are women who have died from ingesting this plant

Doctors and toxicologists warn against taking fleabane for abortion. For example, toxicologist Josh Trebach wrote on Twitter: “Please do not take fleabane as an herbal abortifacient. It is incredibly dangerous.” The herb can lead to liver failure, seizures, and death.

This is also confirmed by an entry on fleabane in the National Library of Medicine: Although there is evidence that taking the herb can lead to an abortion, this dose can also kill the unwanted pregnant woman or lead to lifelong damage to the liver and kidneys. There are also documented cases where fleabane has resulted in poisoning and death.

Papaya

Close-up of a person holding a papaya (Photo by Hassan Jedi/Quds Net News/ZUMA/picture alliance)
According to studies, the indigenous population of some Asian countries used papaya as an abortifacient

For example, the indigenous population in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar has been using papaya as an abortifacient for centuries. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, for which experiments were carried out on rats, comes to the conclusion that the consumption of ripe papaya does not pose any danger to pregnancy – half-ripe or unripe papayas, on the other hand, could be toxic due to a higher concentration of latex and lead to uterine contractions. According to the authors of the study, however, further studies are necessary, since the results of animal experiments can only be transferred to humans to a limited extent.

Pharmacologist Seifert says in a DW interview that normal consumption of the pulp of papaya could not lead to an abortion. ” Of course, if you let a papaya ferment, toxic products are produced,” he continues – which could be dangerous for both the fetus and the mother. But even there, the effect has not been extensively researched.

Black cohosh

Close-up of black cohosh, Cimicifuga racemosa (Photo: Manfred Ruckszio/Zoonar/picture alliance)
Tablets containing black cohosh are sometimes used during menopause.

Black cohosh is also recommended on social networks as a herbal abortifacient. A study by the University of California and the Ibis Reproductive Health Research Center also showed that the herb is used by people trying to have an abortion. There is no evidence that taking the herb leads to abortions – the study situation on black cohosh is also very thin.

So far, black cohosh has mainly been studied in connection with menopause. There it is used against estrogen deficiency. ” However, not in the form of the herb, but as standardized extracts, which are then processed into tablets,” explains pharmacist Leibrock-Plehn.

Black cohosh is also sometimes taken to induce labor faster. At least in one documented case, however, severe undesirable side effects occurred in the newborn after ingestion.

Conclusion

The claim that herbs and plants act as abortifacients is misleading. Although some of the drugs lead to abortion due to poisoning, they also endanger the health of the unintentionally pregnant woman immensely. This can lead to death. The herbal abortion is therefore a very unsafe, life-threatening method that is not recommended by doctors and pharmacologists.

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