'Herbal abortions have been around for centuries. But its only with the rise of the internet that the Vitamin C method has really gained traction.'
Words by Pascale Day
As millennial women, most of us have never had to worry too much about how and where, if necessary, we would get an abortion.
Terminations have been legal in the UK since the late sixties and in America since Roe v. Wade in 1973 giving us the sense that it is our ineradicable right.
But now, for America at least, it seems that women must face the reality the right to an abortion is very much under threat. Last month President Trump passed a law that reinstated the global gag rule, depriving millions of vulnerable women worldwide from accessing reproductive health services.
For women in countries where healthcare comes at a cost, monetary or otherwise, the price of an abortion is often just too steep driving many who are desperate to wade into the treacherous waters of online medical advice, a world awash with pseudo-scientific DIY remedies.
In 2015, there were over 700,000 Google searches in the US that asked how to self-induce an abortion. Tens of thousands of those searches specified abortion using vitamin C or other herbs.
Herbal abortions have been around for centuries and, as a pamphlet from 1981 shows, vitamin C has been a noted abortifacient for decades. But it is only with the rise of the internet that the method has really gained traction.
The immediacy of the internet provides women with a wealth of options at breakneck speed: ‘Vitamin C abortion’ returns around 667,000 search results in 0.78 seconds. It’s easier and quicker to ask Google or Reddit or even Twitter for anecdotal medical advice rather than to schedule an appointment with your doctor.
This, teamed with the fact that the stigma of abortion is still so deep-rooted that even doctors are afraid to train as abortion specialists, makes the internet, for some, a safe space to get abortion advice quickly and without judgement.
This vast number of Google searches in the US speak for themselves. However, restrictions on reproductive rights apply closer to home, too. Abortion in Ireland is illegal unless the life of the mother is at risk. So strict are their laws that in 2014, a 21-year-old woman in Northern Ireland who took abortion tablets bought online, received a suspended prison sentence after her housemates reported her to the police.
The Isle of Man, although less strict than Ireland, has laws with a number of restrictions that make the process difficult, and there are no organisations on the Isle of Man that can help to facilitate abortions.
Though a clinical abortion in the UK is legal, self-aborting is not. Barring Ireland, the UK has one of the harshest punishments for self-induced abortion than any other country in Europe, which, in extreme cases can lead to life imprisonment.
New data provided by BPAS from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency shows that there has been a huge shift in the number of women in England, Wales and Scotland looking to procure abortion pills, jumping from just 5 pills in 2013 to 275 in 2016. Last year, 645 abortion pills were seized on their way to UK addresses.
This is where the ascorbic acid comes in. Women are able to get their hands on high doses of it. One blog claims that 6000mg of vitamin C each day for three days is sufficient. Standard tablets can contain anywhere between 200-1000mg of vitamin C.
Others suggest parsley tea or insertion of organic parsley directly into the vagina as a pessary.
On one site, Sister Zeus, the author offers the disclaimer that the information provided is ‘not intended as a guide,’ but goes on to provide step-by-step instructions on how to use herbs and vitamin C to induce an abortion, and writes copious analyses that are riddled with fallacies and factual blind spots. But medical experts strongly advise against following the advice of such sites and blogs which pose serious health threats.
The appeal of vitamin C over other herbs might be that, whilst no one really knows the effects of large amounts of ascorbic acid on the body, it is considered generally less harmful than herbs like Pennyroyal, which in some cases has caused death. A 1970s study in a Russian scientific journal, considered the first and only real study of vitamin C as an abortifacient, concluded that the high levels of vitamin C stimulated the release of oestrogen, triggering a miscarriage, but did not have any harmful side effects short term.
But there are plenty of horror stories from women who have tried such techniques with devestating effects including incomplete abortions requiring urgent medical care.
Sadly such accounts just illustrate the desperate lengths many women will go to when their rights to safe abortions is restricted. It is naïve to think that limiting a woman’s access to clinical abortions means that there will be fewer abortions. Simplistically banning abortion doesn’t stop desperate women from seeking them out and getting them. It just makes the experience more expensive, more dangerous, and perhaps worst of all, more lonely.