July 22, 1992

The Herbal Abortion

Women Reclaim Their Bodies

By Paul DeRienzo

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s cowardly decision allowing the government to re-enter a woman’s womb and regulate her reproductive decisions I decided to do some research into alternatives to the surgical abortion. This article is the result of that research and should be taken as a study guide not a compendium of advice on how to administer an herbal abortion.

Always remember that some of the most potent drugs are plant derivatives. The potent heart medication digitalis for example is extracted from the herb foxglove. I you use herbs follow instructions from a herbalist or one of the several good books on the subject. Stop using any herbal medication if you feel dizziness or nausea, which are the first signs of possible ill effects.

The effects of herbs vary among individuals and some may not be right for you. With the above cautions in mind let’s take a look at the world of herbal self-healing.

Which Is Witch

Aletheya is a young woman whose soft and radiant features and clear blue eyes conceal a fiercely independent personality. Aletheya became interested in the magical rituals associated with witchcraft several years ago while looking for what she calls-an "Earth based magical lore" that would empower women.

Before the onset of Christianity and before the legions of the Roman Empire set toot into what we now call central and northern Europe the indigenous people who dwelled there considered nature as sacred. The people of this era followed ritual purification and communicated with nature similar to traditional beliefs followed by Native Americans.

Through their knowledge of plants and herbs amassed over centuries women dominated medical practice until the 19th Century. Sick people were attended by "wise women" and midwives who provided treatments for each individual case. But today physicians, who in western culture are predominantly male, treat the disease regardless of the person and often prescribe on the basis of advertising by drug companies.

According to Aletheya there’s a real crisis brewing in the medical profession. She says, "everybody I’m talking to has had a bad experience with doctors." ‘In the case of the vaginal hemorrhaging that women, occasionally suffer she points out that one woman she knows was prescribed a D&C, a surgical procedure relying on scalpels and anesthetics and all the gadgets of the modern medical world. Yet according to Aletheya a plant, in fact a common weed, the Shepherds Purse (when used with Stinging Nettles), rowing wild on the Lower East Side in places lite FDR Park will slow down or stop hemorrhaging.

Aletheya says that by following herbal lore women can "move towards less reliance on a pathetic, supposed healing system that often treats symptoms not the underlying imbalances as herbs often will." A system she adds that believes "if it’s rare it’s better" because then more money can be charged for the treatment.

Many of the most useful herbs are common weeds that are often the specific target of herbicides. Important plants with widespread uses such as the humble dandelion, which is a nutritious food or the common lawn weed Plantain, used as an antiseptic or the Stinging Nettle, a cleansing tonic used in Asian medicine to treat arthritis.

But in this era when a woman’s right to choose an abortion is being forcibly removed by a male supremacist court herbalism, an ancient tradition passed down among generations of women may be one answer to the government’s power to restrict and regulate the male dominated world of doctors and surgeons.

Women As Threat

As early as 5 BC Hippocrates, the Greek founder of modem medicine, warned against fellow physicians who ignored the methods of healing used by simple folks," and he noted that many important drugs were discovered by plain people through mere chance. Women shared an equal role with men in the medical profession until the 13th Century when Christian rulers, trying to hold onto their power as feudalism began crumbling, began to see the ways of common people as a potential threat.

"Wise women were considered vestiges of the pagan Teutonic and Celtic traditions, and therefore a threat to Christianity. Universities took over the training of healing and excluded women from attending. Herbs used for centuries were discarded and replaced with dangerous, untested chemicals and other bizarre treatments such as bleeding and leeches.

In the mid-1400s the inquisition began in Spain with the express purpose of destroying any threats to the same brutal and reactionary regime that sent Columbus to enslave the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere. In England the Hammer of Witches was written in 1484 and laid out the rules for conducting witchhunts, trials and executions of suspected witches. Every magistrate had a copy on his bench.

Any healing power, including midwifery, when discovered by women and not the university, was punished as coming from Satan. In Toulouse, France 400 witches were burned at the stake in one day and in 1585 two villages in England were left with only two female inhabitants. More than nine million women were murdered over four centuries in Europe, all accused of being witches. But what these 400 years really destroyed was the idea of common people treating common people.

Women Seize Power

The scarcity of trained doctors in Colonial America brought about the rise of women domestic healers However, by 1765 the male medical establishment began a counterattack to again restrict tile practice of medicine to University trained men.

In response to the rise of the medical establishment a popular rebellion swept the United States between 1820 and 1840 called the popular Health Movement. During this period there was a resurgence of home-based grassroots medical care and prevention of disease. Herbs were widely used and pharmacists had to he well versed in tile use of herbal remedies.

The formally trained doctors, some with only two months of training, preferred to use what came to be called "heroic" methods on their patients. Huge doses of laxatives, Opium and morphine; leeches and the "bleeding" of patients were commonly used. The treatments often did more harm to the patients than the disease they were supposed to heal.

The peak of the Public Health Movement coincided with the beginning feminism in the United States, and many women influenced by both movements applied for admission to medical schools. Most were rejected and took their training to "irregular" schools such as Eclectic Central Medical College and other schools in Boston and Philadelphia. Soon "ladies Physiological Society’s" sprang up throughout the country teaching anatomy, hygiene and disease prevention. The Movement was the biggest threat the medical hierarchy has ever seen and resulted in a fierce counterattack.


The so-called "regular doctors" fought back with the formation the American Medical Association in 1848 and launched their counterattack with the "irregular" practitioners of the Movement, in particular women practitioners. Male medical professors refused to teach women anatomy and male doctors were reluctant to refer patients to the few women medical school graduates.

The final blow as tile 1910 Flexner Report, financed by robber baron financier Andrew Carnegie, which scapegoated ‘’irregular" medical schools for the general poor state of U.S. medical education at the time.

In 1910 about half of all babies were delivered by midwives who were either African American or immigrants. Obstetricians pressured states to outlaw midwifery, and largely succeeded despite a John Hopkins study indicating that midwives were better able to handle childbirth than medical doctors.

Until the resurgence of feminism in the 70’s midwifery was illegal in New York State and medical school training programs for midwives usually accept only Registered Nurses. Nurses themselves were part of the backlash against women doctors in the mid-19th century. Nurses began its aristocrats who saw tile role of women not as practitioners but as comforters. A role reinforcing the sexist stereotype of the nurturing woman aiding the "heroic" male doctor.

However this stereotypical role for nurses has been fast fading. Nurses have developed s new perception \of their role and have been broadening the concept of healing to include prevention, herbs and spiritual practices aimed to help the seriously ill in this age of AIDS.

Feminist author Nancy Borman wrote in a 1973 article in Majority Report that "the medical profession is an institution which systematically excludes W, people from healing." She says that it was the alienation women felt towards their doctors in the ’60s that brought women together to share experience about their bodies and built a growing respect for alternative medical practices.

Borman writes that although herbal medicine and other alternatives to the medical establishment may never themselves defeat the establishment, by healers can have an impact if they "form a force" capable of it meaningful attack on the AMA, the FDA and the rest of the medical/pharmaceutical establishment."

Listen To The Plants

Aletheya says anyone looking for herbal remedies should approach the subject holistically. She says the beginning herbalist should "open your intuition" and, she adds, one must "get used to listening to tile plants" because "if you ask a plant for advice maybe you I re opening yourself to this advice."

Aletheya is excited about the gardening movement that’s spreading throughout the Lower East Side where gardeners are discovering the value of vacant lots and rooftop gardens. She speaks of a garden near where she lives where medicinal herbs like Shepards Purse, American Ginger, Horsetail, Wild Violet and Wild Rose are being grown.

Not only are these herbs and others grown in gardens but she says they can also be found in parts of city parks that aren’t being sprayed with herbicides and weed killers. One expert on park edibles is Wild Man Steve Brill, it regular on WBAI (99.5) FM whose contract to provide tours of edible plants in city parks was cancelled abruptly by Parks Commissioner Betsy Gotbalm. Gotbalm, who is accused of conflict of interest because of her parallel involvement in the Central Park Conservancy, a group of corporate contributors to city parks, believes parks should he used for passive recreation only.

Probably the most controversial use of herbs is to subvert any new laws passed because of the recent Supreme Court decision allowing states to limit access to abortion. Aletheya points out that the herb Pennyroyal is well-known abortifacients that’s been used to terminate pregnancies since ancient times. She says that there are some cautions that must be followed in using a medicinal herb like Pennyroyal. First and foremost… Never use Pennyroyal Oil… use an infusion. An infusion is a tea brewed from one handful of the dried herb steeped for four hours in a quart Mason jar of hot but not boiling water.

Aletheya stresses that abortifacients must be used during the "window of opportunity" that exists one to two weeks after the first missed period. She says, catch it before or as soon as you think you’ve missed your period. After the fertilized egg is implanted it’s harder."

According to women who have tried this method a Pennyroyal infusion should be drunk at least four times a day, if possible, while sitting in a bath that’s as "hot as you can stand." Aletheya says if this method doesn’t work after six days it should be discontinued. She adds that there are other alternative abortion methods that can he found in herb books and learned from herbalists. (A tea brewed with Pennyroyal and Black and Blue Cohosh is also recommended, as is a tincture of Pennyroyal available in herbal stores.)

As a further caution again it’s important to avoid Pennyroyal Oil, which unlike Pennyroyal tea can be toxic. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta reports three cases of Pennyroyal Oil poisoning last year, including one death, so avoid internal consumption of oil.

Aletheya says even the pro-choice movement has missed the value of herbal abortions. She adds that it’s "as if 20 years ago we got this new thing." She maintains that surgical abortion, is an "invasive pharmaceutical version of something that’s thousands of years old." Aletheya is adamant that this information is an important justification for the pro-choice position. She says, "This is information we used with no hint of morality. Women just made their tea until it was taken from us—Now Aletheya and others want to see herbal abortions brought back.

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