Dangerous herbal abortion misinformation is thriving on WitchTok

“It’s really insane how much these videos get normalized and popularized,” says one TikToker sounding the alarm.

Medicinal herbs collection in color. Vector set of hand drawn  herbs, weeds and meadows. Vintage pla...

Katy Willis grew up in a witchcraft-friendly home. Her mother is an ancestral medicine practitioner and Reiki master, and Willis inherited her mom’s talents for spiritual practices like energy healing, tarot reading, and spell work.

The 24-year-old Willis, who lives in small-town Ohio, deepened her practice by traveling to Mexico in 2021, where she learned about herbalism from an expert, drinking different teas designed to help her with ailments like period cramps. Needless to say, she’s no stranger to the benefits of alternative medicine.

Willis’ passion for herbs and magic led her to TikTok, where there is a thriving witchcraft culture. (Hashtags like #witch, #witchcraft, and #witchtok have amassed more than 100 billion views total.) “I know there’s some people who do this for the aesthetic — it’s definitely trendy,” says Willis, who has 123,000 followers on her TikTok account, @amidnightwitch.

Katy WillisKaty Willis

“I think TikTok really intrigued people to learn more about how witchcraft works,” she continues, “and I do believe the majority of people practicing witchcraft believe in it.”

This belief, it turns out, could be putting people with uteruses in danger. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling revoking the landmark abortion rights decision Roe v. Wade left many people who can get pregnant scrambling for resources and aid as abortion was effectively outlawed in large parts of the U.S. Willis observed many people turning to WitchTok. And she was horrified when she saw the advice on offer.

“I don't know a whole lot about how to make teas or medicine or any of the sorts, but I am educated enough to know what’s harmful,” says Willis. “There's a lot of misinformation going on about how to use herbs as an abortion [method]. That can be extremely harmful to people and their health.”

Willis is one of several creators who has raised the alarm about herbal abortions, which are going viral on TikTok. Videos published since the high court’s June 24 decision — which offer advice about using herbs like mugwort, cinnamon, feverfew, and papaya seeds as alternatives to medical abortions — have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, and more are appearing on the platform each day.

Onlookers and medical professionals are worried that such misinformation could do more harm than good, putting pregnant people at risk — by endangering their lives or leading them away from resources that could help them.

According to herbalists and witches who are active on TikTok, the spread of misinformation about herbal abortions can be traced back to last fall’s SB8 ruling in Texas, when concerns about the sanctity of Roe v. Wade were raised by women across the U.S. One of the more recent videos – which gave recommended doses of papaya seeds, goji berries, black cohosh, chamomile tea, evening primrose oil, and mugwort as DIY abortifacients — has been viewed over one million times since it was published on May 4.

Shawna BynumShawna Bynum

“I noticed it about that time, and it kind of died out very quickly,” says Shawna Bynum, a 41-year-old community herbalist and apothecary owner from Texas who has more than 21,000 followers on her TikTok account, @livingearthherbology. The videos began to spread again when the high court’s draft decision was leaked. “It was a bombardment of misinformation, and it hasn’t really stopped since then,” Bynum says.

Medical practitioners echo Bynum’s concerns. “[Herbal abortions] are only partially effective, and there’s no accurate data about how effective they are. The only effective methods are the abortion pill or surgical termination,” says Dr. Adeeti Gupta, a New York City-based OBGYN and founder of the walk-in women’s health center group Walk In GYN Care.

“I would strongly recommend against them,” Gupta adds. “Even if it’s in early pregnancy, it can lead to heavy bleeding, infection, and death. Every abortion procedure should be supervised by a trained medical provider.”

Bynum has noticed many of the videos are published by new witches and self-taught herbalists, who are often under the age of 25 — and their videos have been so successful that, as an expert herbalist, she’s been inundated with questions about abortifacient herbs.

“The last couple of days, I’ve gotten a couple hundred emails asking for more information. I’m like, ‘This is not the time to fuck around and find out if these herbs are going to work,’” says Bynum, who has posted warnings on her own TikTok page about the dangers of such practices.

Although she understands that TikTok witches are trying to help, she stresses that they are hurting their followers. “The kneejerk reaction is to try and be a helper,” she says. “But it’s more detrimental than helpful.”

Willis is concerned many TikTokers are creating these videos to rack up views, without recognizing the damage they could do. “I feel like a lot of people do it for clickbait or clout, and they don’t understand the harm that it could bring. There’s so many young, naive women watching these videos and saving them for later,” she says.

Willis has been combating misinformation as far back as May by amplifying videos that outline why abortifacient herbs don’t work. After all, she’s seen the damage they can do IRL. “I had a friend who went through a herbal abortion. She took advice through someone she met on TikTok, and she went through two weeks of hell,” Willis says. “It worked, but it’s a one in a million chance.”

‘Ineffective’ methods

Of course, not everyone believes that distributing this information is a bad thing. “I saw people weren’t talking about some of the herbs I knew about, and not every video hits everyone’s For You page. So I thought if I also made a video, more people would be able to see them,” says Lauren Blosser, a 26-year-old nursing student from Michigan with 12,600 followers on her TikTok account, @ahobbitgrandma.

Her video of “herbs you should not look up if you don’t want to have a miscarriage” — a tongue-in-cheek way of distributing information about abortifacients in which Blosser winks at the camera — has been viewed over 300,000 times since she published it in 2020. “I tried to make it easy to digest, so women could research it themselves,” she says. “Obviously, you shouldn’t make a decision based on TikTok.”

Lauren BlosserLauren Blosser

She’s seen her video gaining more traction in the wake of the Roe v. Wade ruling. “I’m still getting likes. I’m glad people are still seeing it,” says Blosser, who tells Input that she is not an herbalist and based her video on her own research. “I’ve definitely noticed more people duetting, commenting, and sharing it.”

Willis says that many videos like the one Blosser has produced are rife with misinformation and dangerous recommendations. “I’ve seen people recommend herbs that are poisonous. It’s just like, Yeah, it’ll kill your child that’s in your womb, 100 percent. But it’s also going to cause all these other issues that could lead to your own death,” she says.

She points to pennyroyal, a herb often recommended on TikTok as an abortifacient, which can cause damage to a person’s liver and kidneys. “I don't think people think about that,” Willis says. “It’s really insane how much these videos get normalized and popularized.”

Bynum knows these videos often find women when they are in a desperate position and wants them to recognize that modern medicine exists for a reason. “There was a time when your only option was herbal medicine, so that’s what people used. At the same time, let’s be real: Women died, or it was unsuccessful, and babies were born with birth defects,” she says.

“The most likely thing that’s going to happen is people will get go sick they’ll need to see a doctor,“ she continues. “And then, with mandatory reporting, they’ll be arrested for attempted murder.”

Blosser, meanwhile, has a different point of view. “I don’t believe everything should just be straight-up Western medicine,” she says. “Women have been using these herbs for centuries. It’s an important tool to have in your belt — like, ‘better safe than sorry’ if it came down to it. I couldn’t tell someone how much to go out and consume. But I think I can plant that seed of knowledge.”

“My hope is that people really just get that message: Let’s focus more on what’s actually helpful.”

Medical professionals wish users like Blosser wouldn’t go around planting their seeds of knowledge. Dr. Meera Shah, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic in New York State, tells Input that herbal treatments are “ineffective” methods of abortion and urges people considering them to pursue proper medical care.

“People in need of abortion can contact their local Planned Parenthood health center to discuss safe and legal options with a trained healthcare professional,” she says. “Plan C has more information about the difference between getting an abortion from a doctor or nurse and a self-managed abortion, including legal considerations.”

Both Willis and Bynum are firmly on the side of the doctors who condemn herbal abortion treatments, and they are trying their best to amplify the work of content creators who advise against such practices. Since the court’s decision, Willis has reposted videos about deleting period-tracking app data and finding local protests in favor of abortion rights.

“My hope is that people really just get that message: Let’s focus more on what’s actually helpful,” Willis says, “rather than taking the risk of something that might end your life.”