At first, the TikTok video seems like your average makeup tutorial: Alexis, a content creator with glowing skin, perfectly groomed brows, and a scrunchie on her wrist, is applying blush to her cheekbones as “Flesh” by Ghostmane plays in the background. Then the text flashes on screen: “If you’re a female in America worried about your future, just know there is an herb for every ‘situation.’” A list of herbs then flashes onscreen, including pennyroyal, blue cohosh, and mugwort.
Such herbs have become the focal point of a new wave of discourse on TikTok focusing on herbs that can induce abortion. In the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned last Friday — prompting an onslaught of terror and protests from reproductive rights advocates across the country — people on social media are taking matters into their own hands by offering grassroots solutions to those seeking abortions. Some of these solutions, such as a TikTok trend set to the Chainsmokers’ “Paris,” with women in blue states offering to help people in red states procure abortions, have been helpful; yet medical experts are concerned about the growing trend of TikTok creators promoting these herbal abortifacients — some of which can also have devastating health effects.
“I’m horrified. They’re going to kill people,” says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, a gynecologist and clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine. Minkin had been hearing whispers about people promoting herbal abortifacients on TikTok, as well as home vacuum aspirations, which can potentially result in sepsis or death. “It’s terrifying because 49 years ago, that’s how women died,” she says.
“I’m horrified. They’re going to kill people,” says one doctor. “Forty-nine years ago, that’s how women died.”
One of the most commonly cited abortifacients on TikTok is pennyroyal, a minty, sweet-smelling plant also used in essential oils or insect repellents. Yet pennyroyal contains pulegone, which gets metabolized in the body and forms toxins that can cause liver necrosis, says Josh Trebach, emergency medicine physician and medical toxicologist in Iowa City. Side effects of ingestion can include vomiting and abdominal pain, as well as seizures, coma, liver failure, and death. Blue cohosh, another plant that has been suggested as an abortifacient on TikTok, also contains methylcytisine, which in large doses can result in not just vomiting and abdominal pain, but also excessive drooling, heart arrhythmias, muscle weakness, seizures, coma, and death.
“People may, at the end of the day, perceive these to be potential solutions because they have no other options. As a toxicologist that really scares me,” Trebach says. Because of a dearth of research, “we don’t know if this works well to cause abortions. But we do know it can get people really, really sick.”
On TikTok, there is a plethora of information about these potentially dangerous herbal abortifacients. The hashtag #pennyroyaltea has about 1.1 million views, and while some of the videos are simply references to the Nirvana song “Pennyroyal Tea,” one of the top results is a video advocating for its use as an abortifiacient. That video, from someone claiming to be a nurse at Planned Parenthood, is set to Les Miserables’ “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and has more than 4,500 views. A hashtag for mugwort, another herb purported to be an abortifacient, has more than 157 million views; the top video under that hashtag has more than 350,000 views. “This is caution not to drink mugwort tea while pregnant because it may simulate your menstrual cycle resulting in loosing [sic] the fetus. Once again, please don’t do this,” the text on the video reads, though the caption reads, “Life hack #roevwade #womensrights.”
Trebach says he first started noticing people posting about herbal abortifacients such as pennyroyal and mugwort last month, shortly after a memo regarding the impending Roe v. Wade decision leaked to the press. As Jessica Lucas reported for Input Mag, over the past month or so, such suggestions have become increasingly popular on WitchTok, with videos gaining traction in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, as well as Texas’s SB5 ruling, which passed last year, banning abortions after six weeks. Searches for “pennyroyal,” “blue cohosh,” and “mugwort” have also skyrocketed over the past month, with searches for “pennyroyal abortion” increasing 40 percent and searches for “blue cohosh pregnancy” increasing 70 percent over the past week, according to Google Trends data.
But even though interest in herbal abortifacients is clearly on the rise due to the recent rollback of abortion rights, there has long been an underground market for them, with whisper networks of herbalists and midwives connecting those seeking abortions to such options. Many blogs and Reddit threads on the subject include notes stating they’re not advocating for herbal abortion, while still offering step-by-step information for how to self-induce. The speed with which such information now circulates thanks to platforms like TikTok, however, is frightening to Minkin, who did a subinternship in Barbados in 1974 when abortion was illegal in the country and has seen the aftereffects of self-induced abortion firsthand.
“Fifty years ago we didn’t have TikTok. There was some filtration in information,” she says. “But now anyone can publish anything anywhere and it gets out to billions of people. It just terrifies me.” Minkin also adds that because the herbal supplement market is unregulated in the United States, people can purchase something they believe to be safe and effective and it may not even contain any herbs at all, pointing to a study by the integrative medicine and women’s health specialist Fredi Kronenberg that found that three out of 11 products marketing themselves as black cohosh (which can be used to alleviate menopause effects) did not even contain any black cohosh at all.
“Do I think everyone is maliciously out there trying to spread misinformation? No,” says one expert. “People are trying to find answers.”
Many of the videos on TikTok do not overtly advocate for using such herbs as abortifacients, using such sly language as “definitely *don’t* do this” for apparent legal reasons; others did not explicitly use the term “abortion” or “abortifacient,” opting instead for keywords like “ab0rti0n” in an attempt to skirt TikTok’s notoriously strict content guidelines. Yet the messages are fairly consistent and largely inaccurate: that these are safe, effective, and time-tested alternatives to administering abortion in pregnant people.
Trebach has a great deal of sympathy for TikTok creators who are advocating for herbal abortifacients, as he knows they are simply trying to provide resources to those in need. “Do I think everyone is maliciously out there trying to spread misinformation? No. People are trying to find answers and solutions in navigating this space between uncertainty and Supreme Court rulings,” he says. “I think it’s a very, very challenging time. My biggest concern is that these home remedies, these DIY herbal plant abortions, are being viewed as an alternative to medical treatment and that is not correct.”
TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the spread of potentially dangerous abortion-related information on its platform. Yet it is far from the first time that TikTok has caught flak for promoting videos containing inaccurate or outright dangerous health information. As Rolling Stone reported last year, TikTok was also heavily criticized for pushing videos of people taking ivermectin, the horse deworming treatment that was falsely touted as a Covid-19 treatment.
Yet while Minkin believes TikTok has a responsibility to try to control the spread of videos touting the safety and efficacy of herbal abortifacients, she also acknowledges that the uncertainty of the current legal situation will make it very difficult for people seeking abortions to find other options. For now, websites like Plan C and Safe2Choose provide resources for those seeking at-home abortions such as connecting people to access to abortion pills, which are proven safe and effective. Additionally, people of any age can order mifepristone and misoprostol from Aid Access, which provides access to the medications by mail to anywhere in the US and worldwide.
But the ever-tenuous political situation makes it difficult to provide easy answers — and easy to understand why people on TikTok would flock to them in the form of videos advocating for herbal treatment. What other recourse should people take if they’re seeking an abortion? “They should contact their healthcare provider if they have a reasonable one. I don’t know what the logistics are in red states,” Minkin says. “They should contact a local Planned Parenthood representative. I hope there will still be Planned Parenthood offices.”