The changing landscape of abortion access across the country has prompted many Americans to turn to the internet for answers, including how to self-manage an unwanted pregnancy at home.
Google searches for “DIY abortion” have skyrocketed since the Supreme Court’s decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade, the nearly 50-year landmark ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
Searches for herbs like “pennyroyal” and “mugwort” among others also have spiked as viral TikTok videos and Facebook posts claim they can cause miscarriages or abortions. One video showing how to muddle these herbs into a drinkable tea has reached more than 250,000 views.
“Disinformation thrives when there is confusion,” said Rachael Piltch-Loeb, associate research scientist at New York University’s School of Global Public Health and a preparedness fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. People are turning to these alternative products because “there’s such a void of options out there.”
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But experts urge pregnant people to stay away from herbal concoctions as they can cause immediate and long-term danger to both the fetus and mother.
Unregulated by any national standard, it’s difficult to identify the correct species of plant, the concentration and exact dosing needed to produce the desired health outcome without adverse effects.
“It breaks my heart that we are here at this point in time where people are going to attempt something that could potentially kill them,” said Dr. Melissa Simon, a physician and vice chair for research in the obstetrics and gynecology department at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. ““I really hope that people don’t take home remedies to accomplish an abortion … It’s extremely dangerous.”
Pennyroyal contains pulegone, a highly toxic substance that can be particularly damaging to the liver, said Julie Weber, a pharmacist and president of the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Ingestion can cause gastrointestinal distress such as nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain, according to the National Capital Poison Center. It also can lead to liver and kidney failure, resulting in bleeding, seizures, multiple organ failure and death.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers says it hasn’t seen an increase in call volume related to pennyroyal or other herbal abortifacients, yet, but continues to monitor the National Poison Data System.
Although herbal remedies may appear safe, many plants have toxic compounds, said Norma Fowler, professor in the department of integrative biology at the University of Texas, Austin.
Before ingesting any type of wild plant, Fowler said it’s important to know it’s the right species. For the average American, that’s nearly impossible.
“Unless you’re a trained botanist, it’s pretty hard to identify plant species. You can’t trust the common names,” she said. “The same common name can be used for so many different species.”
Each plant also has a different concentration of toxic compounds depending on the environment and season, Fowler said, and it’s hard to know a plant’s true potency and administer the proper dose without university-grade lab equipment.
“Even if you have the right plant, even if you know the concentration, you still don’t know how to use it properly,” she said. “It’s very dangerous stuff.”
Some well-intentioned social media users may be posting about herbal remedies to genuinely help people with unwanted pregnancies, but Piltch-Loeb said disinformation engines seeking to sew confusion and undermine public trust are likely behind some of these posts.
Before sharing posts, she urges people to think critically and factcheck with a credible organization.
“If you’re calling to one of those poison control centers, you talk to a nurse or pharmacist that specializes in toxicology,” said Weber, who is also the director of the Missouri Poison Center at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital outside St. Louis. “It’s a quick, reliable and credible resource to get information.”
If someone experiences an adverse reaction to a plant, experts recommend calling a poison control center and seeking emergency care.
But it’s not just herbal remedies. Simon said there are also reports of people using certain douches or attempting self-harm to accomplish an abortion.
“It can be very dangerous to the lining of the vagina, causing sometimes permanent damage to those areas, scarring and future infertility,” she said. “It’s obviously very dangerous and absolutely never recommended and usually doesn’t work other than put you in the hospital for other damage.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.