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.

[Guest Post] The Importance of Skepticism and Critical Thinking in American Society

This post was written by a fellow skeptic and student of psychology, Matthew Facciani.

At best, a lack of skepticism and critical thinking in our society will leave humanity uneducated, insipid animals. At worst, it will be the cause of our ultimate demise.

To begin, I would argue that critical thinking (disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence) is related to and facilitates the process of skepticism (the method of suspended judgment or systematic doubt). In order to be skeptical, you must be able to systematically pick apart problems with the concept or idea. By utilizing critical thinking in one’s skepticism, we can challenge fixed beliefs and continue to advance our society with scientific, artistic, social, and other pursuits. Additionally, employers strongly value critical thinking in their potential employees and critical thinking skills are positively correlated with GPA.

Despite the obvious importance of advancing mankind, some individuals are actually opposed to teaching this kind of thinking. The Republican Party of Texas’ Official Platform explicitly stated they were against the teaching of critical thinking in public school classrooms (quoted from their platform: “We oppose the teaching of… critical thinking skills”). It is astonishing that these elected politicians would even consider such a position, let alone have it in their official platform.

This certainly reflects a problem in American society with regards to the values of critical thinking and skepticism. In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan discusses the problem with not valuing these types of thinking in our society. He mentions that even people who may want to study science can be overwhelmed by pseudoscience, and science is “often filtered out” before it reaches us.

The fact that scientists like Sagan are critical of our scientific inadequacies would not mean much if it not for the data that backs up their statements. Americans have embarrassingly low scores in worldwide comparisons of scientific literacy, science, and math. Skepticism and critical thinking are simply not valued in American society, and the data supports it.

Because skepticism and critical thinking are not cultivated in American society, many Americans cannot tell when they encounter something that is pseudoscience (such as homeopathy or astrology). Someone may want to learn about scientific research, but due to our society’s scientific climate, people are inundated with pseudoscientific claims. Furthermore, with the advent of the internet, there is so much information about everything so you can find arguments for any position–with sound evidence or without.

However, a keen understanding of science makes it easy to determine which claims have a substantial amount of evidence. For example, climate change has been documented as a real and problematic phenomenon by many, many researchers. But a few vocal people have found “evidence” against climate change that makes people think twice–as they should when presented with conflicting data. However, any scientifically literate person should be able to see that the overwhelming evidence is that climate change is a real phenomenon and the few studies against it are outliers, poorly done, or cherry-pick data based on their biases.

These biases also impact how people deal with scientific claims in general. People may blindly follow someone who they think is in charge or an expert without analyzing things for themselves (see Milgram’s obedience study). People also see others following these “experts” and are likely to try to conform (see Asch conformity studies). When many people are already blindly following perceived authority figures, it is likely to continue because people do not want to be nonconformists, and the cycle continues. It takes more of a psychological effort to research things for oneself as it is, but couple this with a cultural environment that does not foster critical thinking, skepticism, or science, and we have a legitimate problem.

Furthermore, science in general is often misrepresented in the media. My own field of psychology is often decimated by its public representation and perception. I am technically getting a PhD in experimental psychology, but if I say the word “psychology” to an average person on the street, they think I will psychoanalyze them on a couch, read their mind (though, ironically, my research is actually like mind reading in a scientific sense), or engage in some other pseudoscientific method they saw on television. So I often tell people I study neuroscience because it has less stigma compared to psychology–though people are less likely to know what neuroscience even is!

Most other sciences deal with these issues, as well. The average American is simply not inclined to research or understand scientific concepts because skepticism and critical thinking are not valued in our society. Listening to what people say on television is often good enough for most people. It may not directly impact one person who doesn’t know what an experimental psychologist actually does, but that mindset of incessantly accepting information without challenging it can have catastrophic consequences. We are left with a critical mass of people who do not challenge information presented to them. They blindly follow what perceived authority figures tell them without a second thought.

Critical thinking allows people to dissect and analyze information, and skepticism prompts them to question the information that’s being presented to them first. So I ask, I plead, whoever is reading this–please stand up for the importance of skepticism and critical thinking. Write to your local politicians telling them about it. Do not let someone say something mindless and unfounded without challenging them. We need to foster an environment in which people feel comfortable challenging ideas and concepts. Once this happens, many more people will be thinking critically about our society’s problems and greater progress will occur.

Matthew Facciani is a 2nd year PhD student studying cognitive neuroscience at the University of South Carolina. He completed his undergraduate education at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, receiving a B.A. in Psychology with honors. Facciani is also a secular activist, but advocates for any group that is oppressed or treated unfairly.