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Photography NordWood Themes

Dangerous herbal abortion misinformation is going viral on TikTok

Following the overturn of Roe v Wade, videos recommending poisonous herbs to treat ‘late periods’ are racking up millions of views on the app

Back in the late 1840s, a physician known as “Madame Restell” ran ads in a New York newspaper advertising services to treat women’s “suppressed” or “blocked” periods. It was a coded way of marketing abortion services, following an 1845 ruling which made abortion at any stage of pregnancy illegal.

Nearly 200 years later, following the overturn of Roe v Wade, women are using similarly coded language to talk about abortion on social media. “Please don’t buy mugwort tea if you’re pregnant because it will cause a miscarriage!” declares one TikTok video with over 311,000 views. “Women, be careful,” says another with over 5 million views. “Papaya seeds 1nduce ab0rti0n.”

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling which made access to abortion a constitutional right, has made life hell for countless women living in red states in the US. Already, women are burning through their savings to fund last-minute trips to other states for treatment, imploring strangers for help, and stockpiling the morning after pill. To put it plainly, they’re desperate.

With clinics shuttered and doctors facing fines of up to $100,000 for facilitating abortion, it’s unsurprising people are turning to the internet for advice. There are some genuinely helpful spaces: forums like the r/auntienetwork subreddit are already assisting women to travel to other states where abortion is still legal and the Plan C website offers resources for women self-managing abortions with pills. But at the same time, social media is now swirling with misinformation. As flagged by Jessica Lucas in Input Mag, much of this misinformation is coming from WitchTok.

On one end of the spectrum, there are clips which suggest remedies which simply won’t work – like eating papaya or sesame seeds. On the other end, there are numerous videos encouraging women to ingest herbs such as mugwort, blue cohosh, pennyroyal, or angelica root – which, in some cases, can be poisonous and result in death. Over the course of the past month, Google searches for “pennyroyal” have risen by 62 per cent, “mugwort” by 68 per cent, and “diy abortion” by 86 per cent.

Dr Jonathan Lord, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, has steadfastly warned against herbal abortion. “The safest abortions are medical and surgical abortions which are effective procedures that have been thoroughly researched, whereas there is no evidence to support using herbs in this way,” he says.

“We are concerned that misinformation is circulating on social media platforms about the use of herbs to cause an abortion. Due to a lack of research, there may be unknown risks to the woman and baby and we would advise against this.” 

@tales_apothecary This is a rough time for our generation no doubts. Stay educated and stay safe please. #fyp #rowvwade #roevwade #women #foryoupage #rights #abcxyz #foryou ♬ original sound - rinkomaniaa

It’s frightening but entirely unsurprising that women are taking desperate action in the face of the fall of Roe v Wade. Throughout history, women have tried any means to terminate an unwanted pregnancy – from the Ancient Greeks swilling wine laced with silphium, pepper, and myrrh, to women in the 1950s drinking neat gin in boiling hot baths. And disturbingly, in states where abortion laws have always been particularly stringent, women have never stopped attempting DIY abortions.

According to a 2015 survey, between 100,000 and 240,000 women between the ages of 18 and 49 in Texas have tried to end a pregnancy by themselves. The most common method reported was by taking the illegally-procured Misoprostol, as well as “herbs or homeopathic remedies, getting hit or punched in the abdomen, using alcohol or illicit drugs, or taking hormonal pills.” Chillingly, Anna Yocca was jailed in Tennessee after attempting a coat hanger abortion in 2015.

Worryingly, younger women and girls are particularly susceptible to online misinformation surrounding abortion, as they’re more likely to be dependent on parents, in school, or unemployed and seek out content relating to ‘DIY’, at-home abortion. Plus, on TikTok – where videos promoting ingesting herbs like mugwort or pennyroyal to ‘start your period’ are rapidly gaining traction – 60 per cent of users are aged between 16 and 24.

“Medical and surgical abortions are safe procedures for which major complications are uncommon at any stage of pregnancy,” Dr Lord continues. “The earlier in your pregnancy you have an abortion, the safer it is. We would encourage anyone considering an abortion to seek support from a healthcare professional rather than trying unsupported methods.”

But we can’t blame women in states where abortion is now banned or restricted for taking desperate measures when they’re in entirely desperate situations. It’s also worth acknowledging that the majority of creators erroneously recommending herbal abortifacients are well-intentioned, too. Ultimately, the lion’s share of responsibility for any harm that comes to women in light of the overturning of Roe ultimately lies with the justices behind the cruel decision: Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Amy Coney Barret, and Brett Kavanaugh. They’d been told, repeatedly, that you can never ban abortion – only safe abortion. And now, devastatingly, we’re witnessing this warning come true.

Anyone looking for advice on safe, self-managed abortion in the US can visit the Plan C website.