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Herbal Abortifacients and other Folk “Remedies”

by | Sep 23, 2011

By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL-ETF Director of Education & Research

Randall K. O'Bannon, Ph.D.

You may have seen the 9/13/11 story from the Rapid City Journal (South Dakota) about a man trying to use Blue Cohosh, made from a flowering plant with bluish berries and leaves, to abort the baby of his girlfriend, and wondered whether this was some new development in the search for new abortifacients. (Dave Andrusko wrote about it at www.nationalrighttolifenews.org/news/2011/09/man-accused-of-using-herb-to-try-to-abort-girlfriends-baby. )

The truth is, no, this is one of those folk “remedies” that have been around for a long time. But in this day where every old wives’ tale finds a new home on the Internet, this is likely to be the sort of thing you’ll see popping up more and more often.  And the current promotion of chemical abortifacients such as RU486 and methotrexate only feed this macabre curiosity for some easy, “natural” way for women to abort.

There’s a basic reason, however, why these methods have never gone mainstream: most all of them do not work.  And those few that might be called “effective” are dangerous and often deadly to the mother.

Nearly 5,000 years ago, a medical text associated with the Chinese emperor Shen Nung, suggested mercury, a highly reactive toxic agent, as a “remedy” for many conditions, including pregnancy.  Though it can, in fact, cause severe developmental problems in unborn children, it should also be noted that there are dangers for anyone who experiences substantial exposure to mercury or even mercury vapor. Mercury can impact the central nervous system, the endocrine system, kidneys and other organs, and can bring about brain damage or even death.

An Egyptian papyrus from 1550-1500 BC lists several herbs and substances for “stripping off” or “loosening” the child in woman’s belly.  Included among these were salves, concoctions, and pessaries mixed from things like onions, beer, wine, acacia, colocynth or juniper plants, terebinth or pine resin, bird dung, parts of beetles, turtles, etc.  

While many of these strike the modern mind as merely superstitious or silly, some of these are in fact highly toxic and extremely dangerous.  One book (Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance, 1992) noted that women in the Middle East still use colocynth as an abortifacient, and related the story of an Arabic woman taking 120 grains of colocynth powder to induce an abortion who herself died within 50 hours.

The Greek physician, Soranus, in his second century Treatise on Gynecology lists a number of abortion recipes with linseed, sulfur, laurel, wormwood, myrrh, mold, ox bile, and even marshmallow.  Some of these were used in sitz baths, followed by poultices, while others were made into pills or vaginal suppositories.

While some of the external methods may have been as harmless as they were ineffective, Soranus himself admitted that “the evil from these things [ingestive abortifacients] is too great, since they damage and upset the stomach, and besides cause congestion of the head and induce sympathetic reactions” (quoted in Joseph Dellapenna’s, Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History, 2006). 

The basic idea appears to have been to so overwhelm a woman’s system that her pregnancy became unsustainable.  Milder methods and doses, though, did not work, but stronger poisons put the woman’s life at risk.  It was because of the risk involved that 4th century AD Sts Jerome and Basil of Caesarea considered users of these potions as guilty not only of the sin of abortion, but also the sin of suicide. St. Basil noted in 374 that “usually the woman dies in such attempts.” (Dellapenna).

You will find websites today heralding “the lost knowledge of herbal abortion” featuring many of these ancient abortifacient recipes and others using plants and such Blue Cohosh, pennyroyal, and Queen Anne’s Lace (e.g., http://www.myspace.com/276805153/blog/326251856).  Perhaps the unnamed  boyfriend mentioned in the Rapid City Press story mentioned above got his idea from one of these websites

Despite the revisionist history, however, there is no real medical evidence that any of these herbal “remedies” were ever effective and safe, and careful modern analysis has supported this conclusion. 

One historian sympathetic to the abortion movement quoted by Dellapenna put the effectiveness of these potions at somewhere between 7% and 14% – about what one might expect to be the miscarriage rate. 

Those rare few that do work can be deadly to mother and child.  In 1936, Frederick J. Taussig, one of the preeminent abortion researchers of the 20th century, reported on results of a test of savin oil (juniper), one of the popular herbal abortifacients.  

Ten of the 21 women tested aborted, but nine of those died. Four who did not abort also died.

Had any of these herbal methods been adequate, the abortion industry would not have spent so many years and so many dollars developing abortifacient drugs such as RU486 and trying to employ drugs like methotrexate or misoprostol already on the market. 

[Methotrexate is a chemotherapy drug normally used to treat fast growing cancer cells that has been used to target the fast growing cells of young child. Misoprostol is a prostaglandin used to prevent stomach ulcers that also can be used alone or in conjunction with RU486 to stimulate powerful uterine contractions to expel the unborn child.] 

While safer and more “effective” than the herbal methods (how could they not be?), these “new and improved” abortifacients still come with risks of their own.  Even they do not always result in a complete abortion, so that a certain number of women return to the clinic for surgical abortions or run the risk of bearing children harmed by the drugs.

Women using these chemical abortifacients approved by the FDA and accepted by the medical establishment have ended up in the hospital and a number have died—14 in the United States alone among RU486 users.

The truth is that there is no absolutely safe, simple, effective way for a woman to kill her baby without putting her own life and health at risk.  Going with more natural methods doesn’t make it any safer or easier or more ethically acceptable.

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Categories: Abortion