Herbal Abortions and Editorial Responsibility

Content note: graphic descriptions of abortions and miscarriages

Being both a feminist and a skeptic means walking the fine line of critiquing the way science and medicine are practiced without denying their importance and validity, of empowering individuals who have faced abuse by these institutions without promoting at-best useless and at-worst dangerous pseudoscience to these individuals instead.

I was reminded of this ever-present tension when I read a book of essays called Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generationedited by Barbara Findlen. One of the essays was titled “Abortion, Vacuum Cleaners and the Power Within,” and the subject was the author’s negative experiences with what she called “clinical” abortions–that is, abortions performed by someone licensed to perform abortions.

The author, Inga Muscio, describes the several clinical abortions she had: they were painful and terrifying:

Have you any idea how it feels to willingly and voluntarily submit to excruciating torture because you dumbly forgot to insert your diaphragm, which gives you ugly yeast infections and hurts you to fuck unless you lie flat on your back? I had to withstand this torture because I was a bad girl. I didn’t do good, I fucked up. So I had the same choice as before, that glowing, outstanding choice we ladies fight tooth and nail for: the choice to get my insides ruthlessly sucked by some inhuman shit pile, invented not by my foremothers, but by someone who would never, ever in a million years have that tube jammed up his dickhole and turned on full blast, slurping everything in its path.

Muscio, who is very clear about her opinions on “Western medicine” (she at one point refers to it as “that smelly dog who farts across the house and we just don’t have the heart to put out of its misery”), eventually gets pregnant again, and this time she tries something else:

I started talking to my girlfriends. Looking to my immediate community for help led me to Judy, the masseuse, who rubbed me in places you aren’t supposed to rub pregnant ladies. She also did some reflexology in the same vein. Panacea told me where to find detailed recipes for herbal abortifacients and emmenagogues. Esther supported me and stayed with me every day. Bridget brought me flowers. Possibly most important was the fact that I possessed not one single filament of self-doubt. With that core of supportive women surrounding me and with my mind made up, I was pretty much invincible.

So, one morning, after a week of nonstop praying, massaging, tea drinking, talking and thinking, I was brushing my teeth at the sink and felt a very peculiar mmmmbloommmp-like feeling. I looked at the bathroom floor, and there, between my feet, was some blood and a little round thing. It was clear but felt like one of them unshiny Super Balls. It was the neatest thing I ever did see. An orb of life and energy, in my hand.

But lest you think Muscio intends this as a solution just for herself, she concludes, disturbingly:

Concentrating on the power within our own circle of women was once a major focus of the women’s health movement. I think we would benefit from once again creating informal health collectives where we discuss things like our bodies and our selves. If we believed in our own power and the power of our immediate communities, then abortion clinics, in their present incarnation, would be completely unnecessary. Let the fundamentalist dickheads burn all those vacuum cleaners to the ground. if alternative organic abortions were explored and taken more seriously, there wouldn’t be much of an abortion debate. Abortion would be a personal, intimate thing among friends.

Can you say Amen.

I finished the essay feeling confused. Although Muscio explained that “clinical” abortions were painful and felt wrong to her, she did not even attempt to explain her fury at abortion providers (whom she seems to think are all men). She did not explain why (or even whether) a painful and scary medical procedure that aborts a fetus is any different from a painful and scary medical procedure that stops a tooth infection or removes a tumor. Would she advocate “alternative organic” methods for those problems, too?

Her graphic imagery of vacuum cleaners, blood, and gore is never explained or justified in any way. She just doesn’t like the idea of abortions, and this, apparently, is reason enough to let abortion clinics go extinct.

Muscio further erases the fact that women, too, can and do perform abortions, and her implication that only women can understand the female reproductive system is extremely cisnormative (and also simply wrong; any doctor who has spent years studying those organs and operating on them and helping to keep them healthy surely knows more about them than I, a cis woman, do).

But I think I’m most disturbed not by Muscio’s ideas, but by the editor’s decision to publish them in this anthology.

How would a young person, perhaps not very knowledgeable about abortions, perhaps who has grown up being told they are awful and immoral, perhaps in need of (or at risk of needing) an abortion themselves, react to reading this piece? What decisions would they make about their health? I’m wondering if the editor thought about this before choosing to publish the essay.

On one hand, I see the value of publishing and reading all kinds of narratives about reproductive health, including this one. In our rush to portray abortion as a standard, no-big-deal sort of medical procedure, advocates for reproductive rights sometimes lose sight of the fact that, like any other medical procedure, abortion can be terrifying and traumatic completely independently of the fact that it’s so stigmatized.

Fear of medical procedures (and fear of pain) is something that people are expected to magically “outgrow” when they stop being children. Some do, but some don’t. Doctors don’t always know how to respond to adult patients with extreme fear, and often respond without empathy or compassion. This is only one of many reasons some people turn to practitioners of alternative medicine for help.

Understanding this is essential if we are to help people find healthcare that works (both by actually getting them physically better and by treating them with dignity and care). But the essay was presented in the book without any sort of commentary. While the book’s editor isn’t necessarily condoning or supporting the ideas in the essay, she is nevertheless promoting them by giving them wider circulation than they would otherwise have.

People may read the essay and become convinced that prayer and herbal tea can actually abort a fetus, and that getting an abortion performed by a medical professional is always a horrible experience to be avoided at all costs. That someone would end up with an unwanted child is probably the best case scenario of taking Muscio’s advice, as alt-med remedies can be actively harmful and dangerous.

(In fact, in the essay, Muscio elaborates on the specific “herbal remedies” she used. One of them was pennyroyal, which was implicated in the death of a woman who used it to try to induce an abortion. She didn’t know that she had an ectopic pregnancy. In general, the history of herbal abortifacients is, as i09 puts it, terrifying.)

Giving people medically accurate information about reproductive health is a crucial part of progressive activism. While one might argue that left-wing distortions of science and medicine are more well-intentioned than their right-wing counterparts, the end result is absolutely identical: people don’t understand how their bodies really work, how medicine works, which medical interventions are supported by the evidence and which are not. People feel ashamed of seeking out medical care that works.

I know that there are compelling reasons to publish this essay as is. I can understand why the author of this book might’ve done it. But I wouldn’t. It seems irresponsible.


P.S. Many of the other essays in the book were actually pretty cool. Here are my favorite quotes.

Herbal Abortions and Editorial Responsibility

26 thoughts on “Herbal Abortions and Editorial Responsibility

  1. 1

    This sort of reminds me of various DIY birth control nonsense I’ve heard over the course of my life (much of it believed by way too may people), such as the idea that party balloons make good condom substitutes (for people squeamish about being seen buying condoms) or all varieties of weird measures that are supposed to prevent pregnancy (from certain positions to doing it in a hot tub to having sex according to the lunar cycle.)

    As a person who has psychiatric problems, I understand that the medical establishment doesn’t always do a good job and often feels like an impersonal assembly-line, but sometimes sound science can be administered in an incompetent or callous fashion. Alt-med is a business that thrives by finding people dissatisfied by their experiences and selling them completely unreliable trash as treatments but by doing so in a way that ‘feels’ more personal and caring. The question is how to combine good science with good treatment.

    Something I’m noting is that the only nearby abortion providers I can think of are women, at least in my area right now. No point there, just the essay quotes seemed to imply that all abortionists are callous men indifferent to patient comfort and the ‘right’ way to get treatment is from a group of nurturing women with ‘natural’ herbal remedies. She’s really engaging in some pretty gender-stereotypical thinking.

  2. 2

    Holy fuck. Why would anyone believe that massage can cause an abortion? And more importantly, why would anyone print that information as if it were true? I’ve been a massage therapist for 20 years (how time flies) and can say with confidence that there are no spots that will cause an abortion if you massage them. I’ve discussed it with other therapists, and for the most part we’re all somewhat bewildered as to how this rumor got started.

    I take that back. Nearly all massage schools will advise against massaging certain spots on pregnant women. The funny thing is, no two schools can ever agree on where those certain spots are. Don’t work on the knee, in particular the lower angles of the patella. Stay away from the ankle, but mostly the outside of the joint. Another advises against working on the feet. We all get advise from the schools, then learn to ignore much of the bullshit that passes for advise. If you could really cause an abortion with massage, we’d all know where those spots are, and there would be no need for surgical abortions.

    If you need help with an unwanted pregnancy, Planned Parenthood is a great place to start. If you have a stiff neck, give a call to your massage therapist. Try not to mix the two up. No one at PP will give you a neck rub.

  3. 3

    Prior to the Obstetric/Gynaecological adoption of abortion, it was one of the most riskiest procedures out there.

    We turned it into an outpatient procedure with an incredibly low mortality rate. There are different indications for abortions and what procedure needs to be done.

    There is a large amount of quackery aimed at women that is aimed almost exclusively under the notion that it is feminist. It’s not. The adoption of medical abortion empowered women far more than the quacks. However doctors are rarely part of the dialogue, so you instead saw a massive movement to push the notion that medicine is anti-female.

    It’s simple.

    Lamaze classes? It’s quackery. Yet it’s something we consider a sensible part of child birth. The quacks have snuck so much into women’s healthcare dialogue that a lot of the advice is aimed at them. From Anti-Vax to homeopathy to megaa dose vitamins to naturopathy to even something as mad as this.

    And I say mad because I have had to go see women who don’t have the choice of western healthcare and medical abortions make “do” with abortifactants.

    You can die, you can prolapse the uterus, you can cause an infection, you can cause infertility or you can straight up lose your uterus or cause a recto-uterine or vesiculo–uterine fistula if you faff around with dangerous “natural” methods.

    And the joke is medical abortion cannot be more natural.

    We use hormones. The same ones made by your body for medical abortions.

    It’s just… sad to read this. And the worst bit is if I actually covered abortions and pointed out how mad this is I would get a sizeable number of women defending the “right to make bad decisions” and push them as empowerment.

    I have seen women claim anti-pain medication is anti-empowerment and helping delivery along is anti-empowerment. Not to mention that as a man I cannot help in delivery. And their websites are filled with PROUD mothers who delivered dangerously blue babies and proud mothers who’s babies died in birth. And they are all proud of the achievement of childbirth which was the greater experience than the health of their babies.

    Poking around I found out why they were all so proud.

    They ban those who’s babies die in birth and who get mad and start asking for recompense for shitty advice only to find out that the certificate midwives are not medical practitioners and so are not liable for the advice they give. You are liable for listening to them.

    To point out how bad blue babies are? It’s birth asphyxia. The second stage of labour must be completed in under 60 minutes. At 45 minutes we start preparing for episiotomy and forceps/vacuum.

    I have heard of such births taking hours. With dilation of cervix being noted 3 to 5 hours from delivery. And then the proud mother showing off their child who was “cursed” with cerebral palsy.

    Cerebral Palsy is caused by birth asphyxia.

    The reason alt. med have time to spend with you is because they are paid by the hour.

    1. CEG

      Pardon me, but while we’re talking about medical misinformation, this: “The second stage of labour must be completed in under 60 minutes. At 45 minutes we start preparing for episiotomy and forceps/vacuum” is, to understate, inaccurate. Second stage dystocia – prolonged second stage of labor – is defined as more than 3 hours in a first time (primiparous) mother, or more than 2 hours in a mother who has given birth before (multiparous). By your reference to forceps – as well as your spelling of labor as labour – would it be correct to presume that you practice medicine outside the US? Or do you practice medicine at all? Perhaps this is simply a regional difference in obstetrical/midwifery practices? But I have seen second stages varying from under an hour to, at what I will say is a QUITE unusual outside figure, 14 hours, with zero maternal or infant complications.

  4. 6

    This is horrifying. I won’t say that my vacuum extraction procedure was “fun”, but it was a short few minutes of cramping and then a couple of weeks of bleeding afterwards. Compared to pregnancy and childbirth, it was nothing. I also chose not to have valium- I’m sure the procedure was even easier when you have a bit of relaxation on board. The scary essentialist bullshit is getting an awful lot of traction it seems, based on readings of the Skeptical OB and essays like that one. Why do we want to take women BACKWARDS and call it feminism?

  5. 8

    In my view? It’s a dangerous masquerade of quackery posing as feminism. It’s harmful stuff. Really harmful because it’s pushed by a variety of quacks and in many cases leaves a trail of dead.

    There are dozens of women I know through the injured by homebirth forums who read and who come up with the same kind of literature “until” something goes wrong and someone gets hurt. Then these people abandon those who need care the most.

    It’s painful to read that article because I actually get to see what happens when people do things like this.

  6. 9

    Why do we want to take women BACKWARDS and call it feminism?

    A lot of things get called feminism that aren’t. Think “feminists for life”, for example. I have a rule of thumb about it: if an act decreases the freedom of women then it is not feminist. Encouraging women to use unsafe methods of abortion and saying, “Let the fundamentalist dickheads burn all those vacuum cleaners to the ground,” is not feminist. It is an anti-feminist limitation on women’s rights and safety.

  7. Pen

    Publishing this essay was irresponsible. Some women have ended up seriously harming -even killing – themselves or damaging a foetus that lives and is born terribly disabled as a result. Since she didn’t do either of those things, and given how common miscarriages are, she very likely was going to have one anyway. Otherwise the best that could happen to her is to stay pregnant until she’s out of the safe and reasonable abortion zone.

    On the other hand the experience of abortion she describes can be improved. I think general anesthetic should be discussed if there is a significant risk of the woman being traumatised, even though it does have relatively minor risks. Chemical abortions are less stressful than mechanical ones. It has to be said that an artificially induced miscarriage is never going to be more fun than a natural one, but there are ways to make it a little easier. Maybe this woman should also revisit her contraceptive choices, especially since the one she’s using doesn’t seem to be suiting her.

    It’s particularly upsetting that under the guise of empowering women, this kind of bullshit encourages some women towards disempowering solutions: spending their time, money and energy on stuff that does absolutely nothing while making them feel in control.

  8. 11

    I saw inga speak a while back, before her autobiography came out. I was quite into alto-med an the like and pretty extreme. Even so, her discussion of her abortions scared the crap out of me, I was super behind her “feminist” stuff but even I thought she was extreme. Ffs she advocates a ton of be (which I can see now) and a lot of it is dangerous. She’s super chill in person which just highlights the extremism she espouses.

  9. 12

    This is a good post. I hate it when alternative medicine is marketed as feminist. Sure doctors can do a better job of dealing with their patients, but distilled water, and questionable herbs are not the answer.

    Modern Medicine is a very powerful tool that can empower women. (Birth Control, child birth, medicine). Discouraging women from using that or any other tool is disempowering.

  10. 13

    The cynical answer to “But I think I’m most disturbed not by Muscio’s ideas, but by the editor’s decision to publish them in this anthology.”:
    If “Voices from the Next Feminist Generation” is trying to be a selection representing at least the major branches of current feminism, then someone needs to represent the dangerous-woo-embracing science-hating gender-essentialist branch too. Unfortunately it does exist, at least by the choice of those people to label themselves feminist.

  11. 14

    Oooooh, I remember this. I read it in Cunt. That book was incredibly important to me in my pre-critical thinking days. I shared it with all my friends, read it in public and felt so brave to have a book with CUNT printed in giant letters. Activism! It really is the perfect book for late high school/early college student girls. Man, I just wanted to move to the Pacific Northwest to be a part of their crunchy sisterhood and paint pictures with my period blood.

    (She spends several pages describing how she and her roommate pretty much…uh…bleed all over the house, and play with the puddles of period blood…yeah. I am not period-phobic by any means, I use reusable menstrual products, but re-reading the chapter now that I’m older makes me wonder why younger-me found that so empowering.)

    I don’t know if this is in the essay you read, but in the book, she also advocates going off of hormonal birth control, and instead, checking to see if you’re fertile by swiping the mucus on your cervix. After swiping the underside of your cervix, she advises, if you’ve got a “nice blob of snot” that “tastes a little salty” it means you’re ovulating. (According to Inga, it’s important for you to taste your “cuntjuices” because “You taste differently when you’re about to bleed than when you’re ovulating and it’s completely up to you to make distinctions.”) She continues: “Before you ovulate, the discharge on your finger is milky and creamy. Right after you ovulate, when you stick your finger up your cunt, you’ll find sticky, tacky, maybe curdy white stuff.”

    Now, I don’t know how accurate all that is (maybe Avicenna can tell us?), but something tells me if one was to adopt this as her birth control method, she’d soon find herself paging through the book looking for the advice on how to handle an unexpected pregnancy.

    I gotta stop; if I get started quoting Cunt, I won’t be able to stop.

    (And the really sad thing is that she’s got some truly brilliant ideas. Rose her followup book, is worlds better, in my humble opinion.)

    1. 14.1

      That sounds oddly similar to various “Natural Family Planning” methods advocated by the Catholic church. It’s kind of strange that a patriarchal anti-choice institution and her end up advocating what amounts to the same ineffective nonsense, all under the guise of it being ‘natural.’ I wish the Naturalistic Fallacy was more widely known, cited and understood.

  12. 16

    Alt-med is a business that thrives by finding people dissatisfied by their experiences and selling them completely unreliable trash as treatments but by doing so in a way that ‘feels’ more personal and caring.

    You’re right and medicine needs some serious reforms, but that’s not the entire story. Alt-med is a big business and it goes out and actively tries to convince people that they should distrust doctors and rely on “natural” medicine. Andrew Wakefield scared a lot of parents who never had a single bad experience with vaccines or pediatricians. Ricki Lake’s movie convinced women who had never had a worse experience with a gynecologist than an unpleasant pap smear that a home birth would be better and safer than a hospital birth-and babies have died because of it. Alt med likes to pretend to be the underdog against Big Pharma, but little counterculture movements don’t get the FDA to make laws for the specific purpose of making it easier for them to do business. Sorry. Just does not happen. They should be considered in the same way one would consider any big business, i.e. with due caution and suspicion.

  13. 17

    In the 1800’s-early 1900’s, you could buy quack herbal abortatives from catalogues. They were marketed as “Ladies remedies for restoring the menses”. They mostly contained herbs like pennyroyal, which technically would produce a miscarriage/abortion but the difference between effective dose & a fatal one was so thin that a lot of women died from taking them. It’s always been a huge pet peeve of mine that so many people think that ‘natural’ is a synonym for ‘safe’.

  14. 18

    I read CUNT when it first came out. I picked it up because the back promised a history of the word, as well as really empowering feminist rhetoric.
    The back of that book lies.

    But as someone who was a highly active pagan at the time, and pretty into woo, I knew that Muscio was dangerously irresponsible in what she wrote. Pennyroyal is incredibly dangerous and easy to overdose on. I realize that she didn’t include dosage instructions, probably because she was avoiding being sued, but talking about using pennyroyal without even a hint as how to do it in terms of body weight proportions is even more dangerous.

    I have an older herbal book that does give the proportions to use for a “safe” herbal abortion, but even the woman who wrote THAT book emphasized that it was dangerous and you were better off going to an actual doctor if you could.

    Which brings up why the knowledge of pennyroyal and other herbal abortificants proliferates. Because we are FAR from abortions being accessible for all women, and just as before Roe, many women would rather risk death than carry a (or another) pregnancy to term. I think it’s Our Bodies, Ourselves that includes (or used to) directions for a relatively safe home abortion procedure, but you need some equipment and at least one trustworthy friend.

  15. 19

    So, one morning, after a week of nonstop praying, massaging, tea drinking, talking and thinking, I was brushing my teeth at the sink and felt a very peculiar mmmmbloommmp-like feeling. I looked at the bathroom floor, and there, between my feet, was some blood and a little round thing. It was clear but felt like one of them unshiny Super Balls. It was the neatest thing I ever did see. An orb of life and energy, in my hand.

    Am I the only one who finds this description rather unbelievable? There’s a blob and apparently without running through her labia and down her thighs it just neatly drops onto the floor. And also the very first sign of the miscarriage is the embryo recognizably coming out…
    Alternative version: Her Ben-wa balls had gotten stuck too high up….

  16. 20

    Her description of her abortion procedure raises the question of if she had the procedure at all, who might have done it if she had one, what their training may have been, and the chance she may have poisoned the atmosphere with her negative attitude from the start. Doctors are human and if a patient dishes out abuse it is entirely natural, but still unprofessional, for the handling to be less delicate than it might be otherwise.

    Of the ladies I know, the few who are wiling to talk about their abortions over the years, generally describe it all in far less horrible terms. Yes, there was some pressure and sucking and pinching gets mentioned but it all is described as minor and none describe it as traumatic as being “ruthlessly sucked by some inhuman shit pile”.

    I suspect that Inga Muscio’s primary motivation was to vilify science based medicine to help promote her preferred quackery. There is no think she might not have invented the entire experience as a means to express her disdain for conventional medicine. Based in reality or not this account is not a risk-free propaganda tactic.

    Herbal medicines are not inherently more safe than conventional medicines. To the extent that they are safer they are also less effective. Anything strong enough to reliably cause an abortion, and complete expulsion, is going to be powerful enough to cause side dangerous effects.

    And you don’t want to mess with anything that doesn’t do the job reliably, or incompletely. The former wasting time necessary for a simple and legal procedure, and the later opening up the chance of life threatening bleeding and/or infection. Of course, the one thing that can be counted upon, true of all proponents of woo, Inga Muscio will not be there to take responsibility if her sage advice gets you into trouble.

  17. 21

    Giliell #16,
    no, you’re not the only one, I had very similar thoughts. The early miscarriages that friends told me about weren’t clean 3-second-mmmmmblops with resulting clear energy balls. More along the lines of a bit of pain, bleeding, clots, more pain, more clots with possibly a few slimy bits included, and feeling a bit sick for a few days.
    Then again, those miscarriages weren’t induced by poison tea, massages and visualisation…
    OTOH, for someone so in touch with her bodily functions as to be able to “visualise” herself into a miscarriage, only noticing a miscarriage when a big blob basically falls out of her is a bit incongruous, seeing how even insensitive myself can precisely feel when my tampon is just about to start leaking…

  18. 22

    Thanks very much for sharing this. And I very much agree with this:

    Being both a feminist and a skeptic means walking the fine line of critiquing the way science and medicine are practiced without denying their importance and validity, of empowering individuals who have faced abuse by these institutions without promoting at-best useless and at-worst dangerous pseudoscience to these individuals instead.

    There’s definitely been a lot in society, and that would obviously include medicine, that has been discriminatory against people based on gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, etc. However, I believe the best route is to fix these problems, instead of mistrusting science. Otherwise, it just creates a situation that reinforces that discrimination, where the best science/evidence-supported information and treatment is available to the few, and everyone else is trying to get by with pseudoscience masquerading as liberation.

    I get really frustrated when people bring out the “choice” argument for stuff that’s actually dangerous. I mean, I do not want to take away anyone’s decision to do what they want with their body, but providing correct information isn’t taking away choice. It’s offering information, so people can make an educated choice that has a better chance of turning out well. How is it empowering to spread pseudoscience?

    I have sympathy for her, for the pain she experienced, but my fear is that people who listen to her advice will be in an even more dangerous situation.

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