I talk a lot about abortion on this channel because it lies right at the intersection of all the things I feel most strongly about: science, healthcare, pseudoscience, religion, and women’s rights. One point I try to mention whenever talking about conservatives trying to stop women from accessing abortion is the actual scientific fact that outlawing abortion does not make women stop getting abortions — it only leads them to get unsafe abortions, which means the same number of dead fetuses and more dead women. The only way to reduce abortion rates is to provide comprehensive sex education to girls and boys from a young age, give them easy access to condoms and other forms of real birth control, make emergency contraception available over the counter at every pharmacy in the country, and provide a social safety net for when accidents happen.
But when I talk about the unsafe abortions that happen when abortion is made illegal, what am I talking about, exactly? Yes, there are the “back alley” abortions that you may have heard were rampant before Roe v Wade, but there are also subtler ways that women are harmed in a society like that, and the kicker is that that harm is done under a banner of women’s empowerment.
A podcaster named Bria Janay recently went viral on Twitter with a post proclaiming “Girls! Here (are) some natural birth control options.” Two images show a list of “natural” herbs, fruits, and vegetables she claims can prevent pregnancy. Let’s see, for fruits and vegetables we’ve got papaya, figs, ginger, and wild yam. Papaya actually can cause a miscarriage if you’re already pregnant, but only if you eat it before it’s ripe. A particular chemical in papaya seeds does decrease male sperm mobility, but only if you eat them every day. And decreased mobility doesn’t mean you can’t get someone pregnant, only that it’s a little harder.
As for figs, as far as I can tell someone just made that up out of whole cloth and put it on the Internet. Figs don’t prevent pregnancy. There’s nothing in a fig that does that.
Ginger? Here’s a quote from a Cambodian woman who used ginger for contraception, as told to the United Nations Population Fund: “I drank it in the morning or before bedtime,” said Chuon, a villager in Cambodia. “After having my fourth child, I used the modern contraceptive pill.”
Ginger is so not a contraceptive that it’s recommended for pregnant people who get nauseated.
“Wild yam” (surprisingly to me) refers to the American form (Dioscorea villosa) and not the African form, which is also used in some folk medicines. But in this case, neither type of yam does anything to prevent pregnancy. I suspect that this became a thing due to the fact that Dr. Carl Djerassi helped develop an early form of birth control pill by synthesizing progestin from an extract of Mexican wild yam root in the late 1940s. So we can thank the humble wild yam for its contribution to real birth control, at least.
On to the herbs! Yes, neem oil might be a great contraceptive! For up to 5 months, not a year. And if you’re a rat who has it literally injected into her uterus. Like, to be fair she didn’t tweet “HUMAN” girls. Maybe this was a listicle for rats. Rats with easy access to neem oil and a doctor with nothing better to do than inject their uteruses. In a not-sexy way.
Asafoetida is, amusingly enough, known as both “food of the gods” and “devil’s dung.” That’s a thing I learned recently. It can prevent pregnancy. Again, in rats, and it was only about 80% effective, and the coumarins that Janay mentions fucked up their actual genes.
Smartweed truly is a magical plant. A few drops of its juice can be put in your ear to kill the worms inside that cause earaches. Not even the people who believe that think that it should be used as contraception.
Angelica, or female ginseng, is known as dong quai in traditional Chinese medicine, where it is basically used for “whatever the fuck is wrong with a woman.” Are you a woman? Got a problem? Here, eat this. Maybe it’ll cause a miscarriage. Maybe it’ll lower your blood pressure. Maybe it’ll interact poorly with other herbs and medications you’re on and you’ll bleed to death. Who knows! There’s no evidence. Except for the last one. There’s evidence of that.
Black Cohosh is another fun “woman cure-all” that is also reminiscent of asafoetida, in that it probably won’t prevent pregnancy but it probably will destroy your chromosomes. It’s okay, if you don’t have chromosomes you can’t pass them along to a baby. I assume that’s how that works. No chromosomes, no baby. Janay suggests you take this with pennyroyal for maximum effectiveness.
Finally, the best part of this list: pennyroyal, which is misspelled, because of course it is. If you get pregnant and Republicans have closed down all the abortion providers within a 12-hour drive of you, taking pennyroyal may kill the fetus! And it may do that by going straight to the source and killing you. Taking pennyroyal orally as Janay suggests often leads to cardiovascular collapse and liver failure. The people who usually die from it were either trying to commit suicide with it or using it as an abortifacient. Sometimes it’s hard for doctors to tell because it’s so easy to kill yourself with it. Here’s an actual case study written by an actual doctor:
“An 18 year old girl developed nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, agitation and confusion starting a few hours after taking one ounce of pennyroyal oil in an attempt to induce abortion. She had drunk pennyroyal tea many times in the past to induce menstruation. She had no history of liver disease, alcohol abuse or risk factors for viral hepatitis, but had been depressed, and the ingestion of pennyroyal oil may have been a suicide attempt. … Over the next few days, the liver tests worsened and she developed progressive renal insufficiency, pulmonary failure and coma requiring intubation. She suffered recurrent cardiopulmonary arrest and multiorgan failure from which she died 7 days after the ingestion.”
That’s what I mean about unsafe abortions. This whole list is what happens when you deny people basic sex education, access to effective birth control, access to abortion, access to overall good, preventative healthcare. So peple turn to “alternative medicine,” deciding that since they can’t see a doctor they’ll become the doctor, because how hard can it be? Screw big pharma, we’re gonna grow birth control in our gardens and become magical witch women and that will be empowering. You can see that mindset in Janay’s responses to all of science Twitter telling her she’s posted something that could actually kill someone:
“ANYTHING can be toxic when taken in excess. Don’t consume anything w/o the supervision of a medical provider you trust, whether that be your Dr,a herbalist,a holistic Dr,ya mama,etc”
“Secondly, w/ so much convo around the authority to make decisions a/b our own bodies,this is the perfect time to explore alternative medicine.This may not be an option for everyone,bt it is an option. In short,people are free to do what the fuck they want to do with their bodies.”
“We share content based on real life experiences while also empowering black women to think freely, challenge societal norms, & live healthier lives. We stand behind women’s choices over their bodies.”
It’s honestly disgusting that dangerous misinformation is being passed around as empowerment, but this is ALWAYS WHAT HAPPENS. This is how humans behave when you disempower them, tell them science and critical thinking is off-limits to them, and legislate their bodies against their will. They turn to bullshit as the only way to gain some semblance of control over their own lives, but it’s a lie that might make them feel a little better while they get pregnant and are forced to carry to term, while they struggle to support children they don’t want, or while they die because they ate a weed that they were sure would help them.
We need universal healthcare, we need comprehensive sex education, and we need idiots like this to recognize when they’re wrong and delete the dangerous misinformation they’ve helped spread to women in need.