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Pennyroyal plant contains a deadly toxin, never use it to induce an abortion

A video on TikTok implied a plant called pennyroyal could cause an abortion, but the plant is dangerous and even a small amount can cause death.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, many states are looking to restrict abortion or ban it entirely. In response, some people have shared purported recipes to induce an abortion at home.

An ER doctor took to Twitter to respond to a TikTok video that implied a plant called pennyroyal could function as an abortifacient, or something that can cause an abortion. “This is incredibly dangerous,” the doctor warned. “It can cause liver failure, seizures and DEATH.”

The person who originally posted the pennyroyal tea post to their TikTok account with 25,000 followers has since deleted the video. They’ve posted a series of apology videos after taking the original down.

THE QUESTION

Can pennyroyal, a proposed herbal abortifacient, cause death?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, pennyroyal can cause death. Do not use it to induce abortions.

WHAT WE FOUND

According to the UK’s National Biodiversity Network, pennyroyal is a plant in the mint family with a strong fragrance similar to spearmint. Two varieties of it, one native to Europe and one native to the U.S., have been used in a number of historical folk remedies. Some of these remedies involve ingesting the oil found in its leaves directly, and some involve drinking pennyroyal tea, which still contains the oil.

The National Capital Poison Center describes pennyroyal oil as a “potentially toxic folk remedy.” 

“It is most notable for its use to induce menstruation and abortion,” the National Capital Poison Center says. “Use of pennyroyal oil has led to severe adverse reactions - and even death.”

According to the National Capital Poison Center, pennyroyal oil contains pulegone, a highly toxic, naturally occurring, organic compound. Pulegone can initially lead to gastrointestinal distress such as nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. It can later lead to liver and kidney failure which then results in bleeding, seizures, multiple organ failure and death.

Other side effects of ingesting pennyroyal oil, the National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus says, include nervous system damage, burning of the throat, fever, confusion, restlessness, dizziness, vision and hearing problems, high blood pressure and lung failure.

The National Capital Poison Center says there is no antidote for pennyroyal oil poisoning. Early treatment in a pennyroyal poisoning case is key.

Pennyroyal oil is extracted from the plant’s leaves, and is therefore present in pennyroyal tea. Although the National Institute of Health says pennyroyal tea has been used “without serious side effects,” MedlinePlus says there “isn't enough reliable information to know if pennyroyal is safe to use as a tea.” That’s because medical experts don’t know how much of the oil an adult can ingest before it becomes dangerous and then deadly.

Because of the dangers it poses and the unknowns regarding safe dosage, medical experts strongly caution people do not use pennyroyal in any way for any medical treatment, including abortion.

According to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, there are several reports from the last few decades of young women who took pennyroyal oil to induce abortion and died of multiorgan failure. The center also says there have been at least two cases of multiorgan failure in infants who were given pennyroyal herbal tea as home remedies.

Both MedlinePlus and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center say there is no scientific evidence to support the herb’s purported uses, including to induce abortion. 

The viral TikTok also mentioned mugwort as an ingredient. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says there isn’t enough evidence that mugwort, which is promoted as a remedy for digestive problems, irregular menstruation, high blood pressure, as a sedative, as a laxative and as a liver tonic, is actually beneficial for any of these conditions. More importantly, it says “very little research has been done on mugwort in people” and “little is known about whether it’s safe to take mugwort orally or to use it topically.”

You should never prepare your own herbal medicines, the National Capital Poison Center says, and you should always check with a healthcare provider before taking any traditional medicine, botanical product, tea, herb or dietary supplement. 

“This will help them manage your care and keep you safe,” the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center says.

Isn’t this the herb Benjamin Franklin recommended for abortions?

One viewer reached out to VERIFY to ask about a separate claim — did Benjamin Franklin write instructions on how to end a pregnancy with herbs?

That claim is true, but it’s a recipe you shouldn’t try to use yourself.

According to the National Archives, Benjamin Franklin published a book called The American Instructor, a manual to just about everything the authors believed to be practical, in 1748. It was mostly a reprinting of a similarly titled book for British audiences by George Fisher, with some omissions and additions from Franklin himself.

One such guide in the book is for “suppression of the courses,” which is a how-to on "purging" what Franklin called "female infirmities." This recipe doesn’t use the word “abortion” directly, but it is made up of ingredients commonly believed to be abortifacients at the time.

Among the ingredients in this recipe is a “quarter of a pint of pennyroyal water.” As mentioned before, pennyroyal is highly toxic and can kill the person who ingests it. Don’t try to copy Franklin’s recipe from nearly 300 years ago.

More from VERIFY: No, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade does not ban birth control

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