Tuesday, May 21, 2019

How to Write an Herbal Abortion

Salutations, my curious congregation. As some of you might already be aware, I live in the butt crack of Ohio. And Ohio is kind of being a turd right now. Now, the river's like spitting distance from my house. I could feasibly walk to Kentucky if I had to, so going out of state for an abortion isn't off the table from me and in fact the doctor that I go to when I need one is already in Kentucky and was before this kerfuffle started. But I still live here.

And it's had this topic on my brain for a bit. Because even in best selling fantasy novels they tend to portray it as "You drink the tea with the herbs in it once and it's done" and that's not how it works. So I'm gonna break it down from a writing perspective.

Content Warnings: More than my usual dose of irreverence, a bit of swearing because you can pry those words from my cold dead hands, and yeah, this blog entry is about characters using herbs to control their reproductive system so if you don't like, don't read. Also, there are things that can go wrong. If that kind of thing squicks you, you may want to avoid this one.

So yes. This blog entry is definitely about how to write an herbal "abortion". Now I put abortion in quotes because that's not exactly 100% accurate. The herbs I'm about to describe to you are emmenagogues, and they are not abortion herbs. They exist to stimulate the flow of your period. That means catching it way early if your character is using it for this purpose.

They function by making the uterus contract like it does any other time you have your period, and like any other time you have your period it hurts like you have a bowling ball sitting on your pelvis and slowly grinding against it. It's not a fun time.

Other note: I am going to use she/her pronouns for the rest of this blog. This also applies if you are writing a male or nonbinary character with a uterus, but I'm making this call for the sake of clarity, and ease of reading and writing.

Now if any of the above is going to be a problem for you, you may leave a complaint by opening a notepad document, writing your complaint in there, and then deleting it because I'm not going to respond to it regardless.

And in case this wasn't obvious: This is for writing. I am not a doctor. There are a lot of good resources for this online, but this is not intended as one. It's for narrative purposes.

I'm willing to bet many of you have gotten to a passage in a book at some point where someone has accidentally conceived and then goes out into the woods to see a hedge witch who gives them a cup of tea and then everything is taken care of. And that's not how it works. Not remotely.

First of all your character should not use the essential oil of any of these herbs. Like any other medicinal herb, this is way fucking toxic in concentrated doses and will legitimately kill your character if she takes too much. Raw herbs only. Fresh preferred, but dry and safely stored is also fine.

Which Herbs to Use

There's a laundry list of emmenagogues. Four that are the typical go to. Let's go down the list.

Pennyroyal - Probably the most well known. It's pretty bitter and smells and tastes a little bit like mint (in fact it's in the mint family), but even when you add sugar it tastes terrible. As in, she's probably going to have to make herself drink it.

Blue and Black Cohosh Root - This one looks a lot like a bunch of sticks and rocks in its dried form and it tastes like dirt. Again, she's probably going to have to make herself drink it.

Tansy - Also an emmenagogue. But, and this is important, all of these herbs have a chance of not working and tansy in particular can cause birth defects. Has a pretty high chance of doing so. So if your character is using tansy she is going to want a solid back up plan if it doesn't work and if she doesn't have one (in a situation like living in a realm where she doesn't have access to safe legal abortion. You know, in medieval times/the dark ages like you're probably writing about) tansy is not the best choice.

When to Use Them

Another important note is that this is not going to be helpful if a character is just minding her own business and suddenly realizes she's pregnant after missing her second period. No, the herbal tea only helps super early on, and works best if used before the period is supposed to start. It can be effective up to two weeks later, but the longer she waits the less effective it's going to be.

Which means she is going to want to keep track of her menstrual cycle and when her period is supposed to start. There's a metric fuckton of  information on the internet about this particular topic, but in a nut shell, a period is supposed to come once every 28 days and can be anywhere from a day or two to a week long. The length doesn't matter, you measure this from the first day of bleeding. After that she's basically got the week before and the week after of very low fertility and odds of conception.

For best results she's going to want to start on the tea about three days before her period is supposed to start in order to stimulate blood flow at the right time. The day after is pretty common, too, though, since typically your character isn't going to realize she needs to do this until after the fact. But the larger a cluster of cells is the harder it's going to be to shake them loose so it's important to catch early.

How to Use Them

This is thing two that most fantasy novels get wrong. It isn't "Drink one cup of tea and abort". In fact, drinking one cup of tea isn't likely to do anything at all unless she uses enough to kill her. Which, as we just discussed up there, is bad.

So. Typically a dose is going to be 1 spoonful of pennyroyal and 1 spoonful of black or blue cohosh, mixed together, and steeped as a tea. And she's going to want to take that dose once every four hours until the bleeding starts.

That means in a situation where you're writing a political intrigue and your courtier doesn't want the queen to give birth, it isn't going to be a matter of slipping these herbs into her meals once or twice. She would almost definitely taste them and it wouldn't work by the time your courtier knew what was going on.

That said if you really need someone in your political intrigue to cause this kind of trouble without killing their target, it's going to have to be a character that's really close to the one in question. Handmaidens, ladies-in-waiting, people that are with her every day and in a good place to be paying attention to her cycle. Someone that can give her something that tastes suspicious or that can cover up the flavor well.

And honestly a political assassin under the guise of a lady-in-waiting wouldn't be a bad set up because they go everywhere the queen goes. It's also a really dangerous position to put this kind of character in because they're likely to be the first person suspected when something goes wrong unless they have done a very good job in their role.

Honestly, in a case like this you are better off making up a fictional herb that works the way emmenagogues tend to be portrayed in fantasy and have done with it. Maybe make a note that it's not how this stuff typically functions.

What Happens Next

After about eight hours (two cups) the cramping will start. It'll be mild at first and only gets worse from there. The cramping, by the way, is absolutely fucking horrendous. Those of you who have periods should imagine the worst one you have ever had, and then double it to be on the safe side so you know what your character is getting into.

Another thing to be aware of is the rush of hormones from both the alleged conception (because honestly at the point the herbs are effective she doesn't know 100%, they didn't have pee sticks in medieval times) and what the emmenagogues are stirring up. It's hellish on an emotional level, too. Which means a lot of self care is going to be necessary.

It already sucks big floppy donkey dick to be in this situation to begin with, and then pile on the judgement of anyone else who realizes what's going on (because again, she's going to be taking this tea every four hours; if she has ladies-i-waiting there is almost no way they don't notice and if she doesn't the people who cohabitate with her probably will). If they don't know herbs and this is something she does regularly she can probably just claim they're to help with cramps, but hey, the cramps are going to be bad enough that they probably won't argue with her.

Further Reading

I'm giving you enough to write this passably. I'm an author. I'm not a doctor, I'm not a midwife, and I would highly recommend not just going off and trying this as written in this blog entry. Your health is more important than your manuscript.

SisterZeus.com has a lot of good and detailed information on the subject, and this article includes a lot of helpful information specifically for our modern world. If this is something that's going to come up in your manuscript, I'd advise going farther into your research.

 Alright, that's all I got for you today.

Fortune Favors,
Megan R. Miller

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