Herbal Abortions and Editorial Responsibility

Content note: graphic descriptions of abortions and miscarriages

Being both a feminist and a skeptic means walking the fine line of critiquing the way science and medicine are practiced without denying their importance and validity, of empowering individuals who have faced abuse by these institutions without promoting at-best useless and at-worst dangerous pseudoscience to these individuals instead.

I was reminded of this ever-present tension when I read a book of essays called Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generationedited by Barbara Findlen. One of the essays was titled “Abortion, Vacuum Cleaners and the Power Within,” and the subject was the author’s negative experiences with what she called “clinical” abortions–that is, abortions performed by someone licensed to perform abortions.

The author, Inga Muscio, describes the several clinical abortions she had: they were painful and terrifying:

Have you any idea how it feels to willingly and voluntarily submit to excruciating torture because you dumbly forgot to insert your diaphragm, which gives you ugly yeast infections and hurts you to fuck unless you lie flat on your back? I had to withstand this torture because I was a bad girl. I didn’t do good, I fucked up. So I had the same choice as before, that glowing, outstanding choice we ladies fight tooth and nail for: the choice to get my insides ruthlessly sucked by some inhuman shit pile, invented not by my foremothers, but by someone who would never, ever in a million years have that tube jammed up his dickhole and turned on full blast, slurping everything in its path.

Muscio, who is very clear about her opinions on “Western medicine” (she at one point refers to it as “that smelly dog who farts across the house and we just don’t have the heart to put out of its misery”), eventually gets pregnant again, and this time she tries something else:

I started talking to my girlfriends. Looking to my immediate community for help led me to Judy, the masseuse, who rubbed me in places you aren’t supposed to rub pregnant ladies. She also did some reflexology in the same vein. Panacea told me where to find detailed recipes for herbal abortifacients and emmenagogues. Esther supported me and stayed with me every day. Bridget brought me flowers. Possibly most important was the fact that I possessed not one single filament of self-doubt. With that core of supportive women surrounding me and with my mind made up, I was pretty much invincible.

So, one morning, after a week of nonstop praying, massaging, tea drinking, talking and thinking, I was brushing my teeth at the sink and felt a very peculiar mmmmbloommmp-like feeling. I looked at the bathroom floor, and there, between my feet, was some blood and a little round thing. It was clear but felt like one of them unshiny Super Balls. It was the neatest thing I ever did see. An orb of life and energy, in my hand.

But lest you think Muscio intends this as a solution just for herself, she concludes, disturbingly:

Concentrating on the power within our own circle of women was once a major focus of the women’s health movement. I think we would benefit from once again creating informal health collectives where we discuss things like our bodies and our selves. If we believed in our own power and the power of our immediate communities, then abortion clinics, in their present incarnation, would be completely unnecessary. Let the fundamentalist dickheads burn all those vacuum cleaners to the ground. if alternative organic abortions were explored and taken more seriously, there wouldn’t be much of an abortion debate. Abortion would be a personal, intimate thing among friends.

Can you say Amen.

I finished the essay feeling confused. Although Muscio explained that “clinical” abortions were painful and felt wrong to her, she did not even attempt to explain her fury at abortion providers (whom she seems to think are all men). She did not explain why (or even whether) a painful and scary medical procedure that aborts a fetus is any different from a painful and scary medical procedure that stops a tooth infection or removes a tumor. Would she advocate “alternative organic” methods for those problems, too?

Her graphic imagery of vacuum cleaners, blood, and gore is never explained or justified in any way. She just doesn’t like the idea of abortions, and this, apparently, is reason enough to let abortion clinics go extinct.

Muscio further erases the fact that women, too, can and do perform abortions, and her implication that only women can understand the female reproductive system is extremely cisnormative (and also simply wrong; any doctor who has spent years studying those organs and operating on them and helping to keep them healthy surely knows more about them than I, a cis woman, do).

But I think I’m most disturbed not by Muscio’s ideas, but by the editor’s decision to publish them in this anthology.

How would a young person, perhaps not very knowledgeable about abortions, perhaps who has grown up being told they are awful and immoral, perhaps in need of (or at risk of needing) an abortion themselves, react to reading this piece? What decisions would they make about their health? I’m wondering if the editor thought about this before choosing to publish the essay.

On one hand, I see the value of publishing and reading all kinds of narratives about reproductive health, including this one. In our rush to portray abortion as a standard, no-big-deal sort of medical procedure, advocates for reproductive rights sometimes lose sight of the fact that, like any other medical procedure, abortion can be terrifying and traumatic completely independently of the fact that it’s so stigmatized.

Fear of medical procedures (and fear of pain) is something that people are expected to magically “outgrow” when they stop being children. Some do, but some don’t. Doctors don’t always know how to respond to adult patients with extreme fear, and often respond without empathy or compassion. This is only one of many reasons some people turn to practitioners of alternative medicine for help.

Understanding this is essential if we are to help people find healthcare that works (both by actually getting them physically better and by treating them with dignity and care). But the essay was presented in the book without any sort of commentary. While the book’s editor isn’t necessarily condoning or supporting the ideas in the essay, she is nevertheless promoting them by giving them wider circulation than they would otherwise have.

People may read the essay and become convinced that prayer and herbal tea can actually abort a fetus, and that getting an abortion performed by a medical professional is always a horrible experience to be avoided at all costs. That someone would end up with an unwanted child is probably the best case scenario of taking Muscio’s advice, as alt-med remedies can be actively harmful and dangerous.

(In fact, in the essay, Muscio elaborates on the specific “herbal remedies” she used. One of them was pennyroyal, which was implicated in the death of a woman who used it to try to induce an abortion. She didn’t know that she had an ectopic pregnancy. In general, the history of herbal abortifacients is, as i09 puts it, terrifying.)

Giving people medically accurate information about reproductive health is a crucial part of progressive activism. While one might argue that left-wing distortions of science and medicine are more well-intentioned than their right-wing counterparts, the end result is absolutely identical: people don’t understand how their bodies really work, how medicine works, which medical interventions are supported by the evidence and which are not. People feel ashamed of seeking out medical care that works.

I know that there are compelling reasons to publish this essay as is. I can understand why the author of this book might’ve done it. But I wouldn’t. It seems irresponsible.


P.S. Many of the other essays in the book were actually pretty cool. Here are my favorite quotes.

[#wiscfi liveblog] Faith-Based Pseudo-Science

The WiS2 conference logo.

It’s the first panel of WiS2!! The topic is faith-based pseudoscience and the panelists are Carrie Poppy, Sarah Moglia, Rebecca Watson, and (Surly) Amy Roth. The moderator is Desiree Schell.

The panelists! From left: Carrie Poppy, Sarah Moglia, Rebecca Watson, and Amy Roth.

The panelists! From left: Carrie Poppy, Sarah Moglia, Rebecca Watson, and Amy Roth.

2:05: Panelists are introducing themselves! Rebecca’s talking about Skepchick: “We also have Teen Skepchick, which is just like Skepchick except without the profanity.”

Desiree: We’re not talking about “faith” just in terms of religion, but in terms of belief-based treatment in general. So homeopathy, anti-vax, and all that is included.

2:08: Amy: A really good example of this is homeopathy. Homeopathy “works” on the principle that “like cures like.” So if someone has certain symptoms, you cure them by finding something that would cause the same symptoms in a healthy person–something that might be poison. You dilute it into water or alcohol. And you shake it. “We’re not gonna get into the details of why, that’s just silly.” You continue to dilute it until there’s not even a molecule of the poison left. They take what’s left, which is basically water or alcohol, and they put it into a sugar pill and give it to you.

Amy poisons the water to demonstrate homeopathy.

Amy poisons the water to demonstrate homeopathy.

Amy’s getting volunteers to take the happy sugar pills!

Here’s how it works. You take the alternative medicine, and either you feel better for whatever reason and you assume that it works, or you get worse and you die. Or you eventually go to a real doctor and you forget about the part where the altmed didn’t work.

2:14: Rebecca: Homeopathy started in Germany in the 18th century and came to the U.S. mainly thanks to the same woman who started the Christian Science movement, which doesn’t believe in medicine but rather praying away illness. They do support homeopathy, however. So religion was an integral part of the way homeopathy was popularized in the U.S.

Amy: At the time, blood-letting was the most popular treatment, and homeopathy sure felt better than that!

Carrie: People who practice altmed are often very religious, although when I was religious this sort of thing was very looked down upon.

Rebecca: I grew up Baptist and even meditation was seen as “the work of the devil.” But even that validates it–”it’s evil, but it works.” You’re still saying it works.

Desiree: There are a lot of similarities. Reiki is very similar to faith healing, for instance.

Carrie: Faith healing is a term for anything where you’re not using “medicine” to heal someone–just waving your hands and stuff like that. Reiki requires “certification,” where you go to someone else who’s been “certified” and get trained.

Rebecca: There’s certification for reiki?

2:19: Rebecca: Pretty much every religion has pseudoscience in it. Creationism is a good example. Creationists believe that god made the world within the last 5,000-or-so years. Another example is female genital mutilation; adherents believe that women need to be cut to make them pure and chaste. The Jewish tradition of male circumcision is similar, and has actually spread disease and led to the deaths of infants.

Another example is the war on women. This is also full of pseudoscience, such as the idea that women who are raped can’t get pregnant. This was something actually said by an elected politician ["Not anymore!" -audience member]. Or, women can’t have contraception or abortion because they are equivalent to murder. This has NO basis in science–only in religious belief.

2:24: Sarah: The idea that god “has a plan” for everyone or that “everything happens for a reason” is another example, and a terrible thing to say to someone who has an illness. But it’s often said to sick people and it discourages them from seeking treatment because it leads them to believe that god will help them through it.

Rebecca: The Secret, too, is faith-based pseudoscience. The “Law of Attraction” (a theory, rather, not a law) states that you can get anything you want in the universe if you pretend you have it. If you pretend hard enough, the universe will give it to you! One idea is that you create a “vision board” where you put things that you want. (Rebecca’s would have a unicorn on it.)

This may seem innocuous–just people pretending to have what they don’t have–but the people most attracted to this idea are the people who are most desperate. And what it’s saying is that kids with cancer just aren’t wishing hard enough. It’s victim-blaming.

It’s become like a religion–people treat it like one.

2:28: Desiree: I want to talk about this idea of “what’s the harm.” Do these things have varying levels of harm? Or all they all harmful?

Amy: Is the law of attraction like the Underpants Gnomes? Step one, collect underpants, step two, ???, step three, profit?

[lots of laughs]

Amy: They’re all harmful. If someone does a “detox” diet, they might not kill themselves per se, but you get a positive response from society for doing something that’s actually harmful, and people end up believing that there are toxins in everything and that they can’t trust their doctors and etc. etc.

Sarah: Are they using altmed in conjunction with going to the doctor, or are they doing it instead of going to the doctor? One is more harmful than the other. Also, there are secondary harms–for instance, sharks are killed to make powder that’s supposed to have some sort of effects.

Amy: Some animals are almost extinct because of this.

Carrie: Yes, there are varying levels of harm, but you can’t estimate how someone might have very little harm for you might have much more harm for someone else. When I was pretending to convert to Mormonism, they told me that there’s no such thing as intersex people and that it’s very “clear” which sex you’re supposed to be.

2:33: Rebecca: Chiropractors also use pseudoscience and believe stuff that has no basis in anything.

2:37: Desiree: It seems that both religious and secular pseudoscience targets women. Is that just my biased perception? If not, why is that?

Amy: That’s because according to our gender roles, the woman is the one who’s in charge of the family, and the shopping and healthcare for the family. So a lot of altmed products are marketed towards women and they “empower” women in a sense because they allow women without much money to be able to afford “healthcare” when perhaps they couldn’t afford to go to an actual doctor. You’re doing something active for your child if you’re buying them some sort of medicine.

Sarah: It also has to do with the fact that modern medicine does not treat men and women equally. For instnace, women are more likely to die of heart attacks because doctors don’t take women’s reports of pain seriously. When I had a Crohn’s flareup at 15, doctors were like, “Oh, you’re just being hysterical.” It can get frustrating after seeing doctor after doctor and you might end up going to a naturopath instead, because they spend much more time with each patient than real doctors do. We need to empower women to speak up and tell doctors that they can’t ignore them, and that they need healthcare.

Anemia is a good example. Women often get it and it’s often attributed to women’s periods. But actually, it can be due to a gastrointestinal bleed, which is really serious. Women should be able to speak up and say that no, it’s not just because of their periods.

Rebecca: The concept of “women’s intuition” also has to do with it. People believe that men use logic and reason, while women have this “other way of knowing” that they should be proud of. But the problem with that is when you find empowerment in something that doesn’t exist.

Jenny McCarthy–[audience groans]–advocates against vaccines because she claims they cause autism, even though all the research says otherwise. Jenny has a son, and when he was very young she believed that he was a “magic angel being with psychic powers called a crystal child” and that she was an “indigo child,” which is also a magical being. [WHAT?!?!?!] Apparently being blonde and blue-eyed has something to do with it? (Kinda racist.)

What happened was that Evan (the child) was diagnosed with autism and the crystal child stuff went away. Instead, Jenny began advocating against vaccines because she believed that that’s what caused it–against the advice of her doctor.

How this ties into empowerment is that Jenny called this “being a tiger mom.” She wasn’t going to just sit back and let the experts decide what was right for her son; she was going to take charge because of her “intuition.”

One writer, an About.com editor, has an autistic child and says that some people criticized her for not being more like Jenny and not being like a “tiger mom.” But she did her own research and chose to trust her doctors, and felt less like a woman for doing so. That’s the problem with presenting magical powers as “empowering” for women. That’s why I argue strongly for empowering women through science and education, and encouraging women to be more skeptical and to fight for themselves.

Amy: Jenny McCarthy has managed to indirectly kill a bunch of people. Just last week a baby died of whooping cough because it wasn’t vaccinated. Everyone, when you go home, get yourself a pertussis booster shot and save a baby.

2:45: Desiree: We’ve talked about a number of other issues besides vaccines and homeopathy. What’s your perspective on the fact that we always take on these two subjects? If we were to go somewhere else with our skepticism, where would you want to go?

Sarah: We need to make skepticism more human-focused. Why do so many women believe in pseudoscience? Why are women predominantly affected by this? rather than simply sitting on our high horses. We need to have more compassionate and focus on the people affected rather than on the problems themselves. [applause]

Amy: I know we’re all atheists and agnostics here, but [some] churches do a really good job of empowering women. If a religious woman decides she’s going to give up god, is she going to find something comparable in our community? If you need help with your baby, if you need advice with your relationships, the secular community should provide that.

Rebecca: We should take advantage of the people in our community. We had a Blog Against Disableism Day on Skepchick, which Sarah participated in. People with disabilities don’t necessarily want an able-bodied person lecturing at them about why they should give up pseudoscience. Someone who has struggled with the same issues might do a better job.

Same applies to women. Having women talk about the same issues that male skeptics talk about might also help reach out to women. Likewise for mothers–Elyse Anders has done a great job writing about raising children, whereas I couldn’t do that.

Amy: People think that talking about this stuff will “dilute” skepticism or atheism, but you can have all kinds of groups. There’s room for all of us.

2:52: Carrie: People focus on homeopathy because it’s hilarious. But the most important things you can tackle are the ones that matter to people who matter to you. If your mom sees a chiropractor, read about chiropractic and see why people believe in it and try to look at it from the point of view of your loved one who believes in it.

Rebecca: The war on women’s rights so obviously overlaps with the goals of the skeptic movement. We need to educate people on the science. There are feminist groups involved in this, but I’ve always wanted skeptic/secular groups to get more involved (although some already are).

Sarah: Part of the problem with our movement is that we like to consistently cite studies and data. But that’s hard to relate to someone who isn’t very educated or interested in science. I’m really mad that pseudoscientific people have co-oped the term “holistic,” because there is a lot to say for the idea of caring for a person rather than a disease. It’s really scary to have a serious illness and have someone come into the hospital room and say “What’s your living will?” We really do need to focus on the whole person and promote patient-centered care.

2:57: Desiree: Audience questions!

Rebecca just drank some of Amy’s fake-poisoned water and spat it out. Amy: “Thanks for not doing the spittake in my face.”

Audience question: What can we do to help lost and suffering people from a secular point of view?

Amy: We need to be better at providing social support.

Rebecca: Altmed conferences/fairs attract a huge number of people. Someone needs to step up and be the Oprah of critical thinking, because the current Oprah is not.

Sarah: The problem is we have Bill Maher. Who doesn’t believe in germ theory.

Rebecca: Skepticism does tend to be in-your-face and about telling people, “Your belief is wrong and here’s why.” But there’s another side of it–the compassionate side. It’s always been there but it hasn’t been stressed. It’s the side that says, “We want to save people’s lives. We want to stop people from being taken advantage of.” I’ve always known that we need an Oprah, but it’s not going to be me. I’m too mean.

3:02: Audience question: Harvard recently conducted a study showing that over 50% of patients reported improvement even when they knew that something is a placebo. So what’s the problem?

Rebecca: Everyone go read Trick or Treatment. It’s written by a former homeopathic doctor. It discusses in detail how we know what works, regardless of whether or not we know how it works. It talks about the first controlled experiment, when many sailors would die aboard boats and a doctor on board decided to split the sailors up into four groups. One group got apples, one got salted beef as usual, another got limes, and another got something else. The group given the same stuff died. The group that got apples didn’t get worse. And the group that got limes got better. It might be considered “alternative medicine,” but it works.

When we talk about pseudoscience, we’re not talking about stuff that we don’t know how it works. We’re talking about stuff that’s been shown not to work. That study about placebos suggests that we shouldn’t give placebos without being honest about what they are.

Carrie: I’d have no problem with homeopathy if it said on the carton that it’s placebo.

Amy: Who knows which disease the example from Trick or Treatment discussed? [Scurvy!]

Also: Hawthorne Effect. When people know they’re being watched, they get better. It works with doctors, too–you want to please your doctor so you feel better and report feeling better.

Carrie: My partner and I play that “please the doctor” game all the time.

[laughs, applause]

3:07: Audience question: What do you think about religion taking over instead of getting help for mental health issues?

Rebecca: Scientology is really bad at this. They have a number of sham organizations and one of them is dedicated to ending the practice of psychiatry entirely. And that’s really harmful, because they blame the people with mental illness for not being “clear” and needing more “auditing.”

Carrie: There can be good motivations behind this, because there are a lot of unsolved problems in psychology. But psychologists admit that. That can only be solved with more science, not less.

Rebecca: Outside of the sphere of real mental illness, it can be beneficial to have someone in the community whom you trust and can go to to talk about your problems. I wish there were more secular alternatives to the religious leaders who serve this function. And with religious leaders and psychics it can get out of hand.

Amy: Should we have a skeptics’ confession box at events?

Rebecca: I would like to be the person hearing the confessions because there would be some juicy shit!

3:10: Audience question: Those of us who think that skepticism can be used to address social issues (stop and frisk, immigration, etc.) are accused of mission drift. It seems that the skeptic movement doesn’t want us.

Amy: Start your own group:

Rebecca: It may seem that the larger skeptic movement doesn’t want you, but everyone on this panel wants you! You get to decide which groups you support, which conferences you attend, etc. You can vote with your dollar.

And the people who are already working on this issue can use a healthy dose of skepticism. A few years back the government convened a panel to determine when women should start getting breast cancer screenings. The panel saw that between the ages of 30 and 40, there were a lot of false positives and it was having a negative impact. So they recommended that the age be pushed back to 40.

I first saw this news on a feminist blog, and the blogger was furious because it’s “just a panel of men who have no idea what women go through” and who just want to not worry “poor hysterical women” with false positives. But that’s wrong! The recommendation was based on solid evidence, and luckily a lot of skeptics in the comments corrected that blogger and pointed out the actual evidence that this was based on.

It’s very important for the feminist blogger to see this and adjust her point of view. What then happened was that on another feminist blog, which was concerned with issues of race, noted that the recommendation that was put out was “for the average woman.” But the average woman is white. When Black women get breast cancer, it tends to happen much earlier and be much more aggressive. So Black women shouldn’t necessarily follow those guidelines. So this is a good example of skeptics getting involved in the feminist movement and making it better.

Encourage leaders of groups to get involved in the issues you are about. And if they won’t, start your own blog or group. That’s why we have guest posts at Skepchick, that’s why we have Skepchickon in July.

3:15: Sarah: Maybe some organizations do consider social justice to be mission drift. But the students in this movement are overwhelmingly supportive of making skepticism and secularism about social justice. There are lots of students here, especially student bloggers. [HI!!!] They’ve called us [the Secular Student Alliance] out, asking why our conference is predominantly white. They raised tons of money for Light the Night, which went to cancer research. We have students doing grassroots activism every single day. College is a very formative time in people’s lives–I became an atheist in college. High school and college are the time to reach people; if someone’s been doing pseudoscience for 20 years it’s gotten ingrained, but if you reach people during high school or college, you can change their minds.

Yay students!

3:16: Panel’s over!


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