This summer, I received funding from the national network of Medical Students for Choice to do an externship in Mexico City. This externship consists of spending two weeks observing in an abortion clinic. But before this…a little detour to Oaxaca.
The week before starting at the clinic, my boyfriend and I planned a short but sweet three-day vacation in Oaxaca, just an hour flight away from Mexico City. The first day passed blissfully. We spent it strolling and tasting our way through the city’s cobblestone streets. The next day, we embarked on what was promised to be a beautiful adventure, hiking through the Mancomunados villages of the nearby Sierra Norte mountains. We started in a pueblo called Cuajimoloyas and headed out for the six-hour trek with our guide, an ageless local named Jose. Over and under trees we trekked, stumbling through fields of wild flowers, happening upon a newborn baby goat, discovering agaves with shoots 50 feet tall. I had asked Jose to share any knowledge he had of the plants, particularly the medicinal plants, which only seemed appropriate as a medical student.
He first showed us poleo, explaining how it is typically used for the stomach and digestion. As we had spent the previous day eating the entirety of Oaxaca’s food supply, these leaves looked quite tasty to my intestines. I popped a few in my mouth and on we went. When we passed another bush I snagged a few more, asking Jose if one can eat too much poleo.“No, no pasa nada,” he responded. And with the trust that comes from pure idiotic ignorance, I chomped on a few more.
We pressed on, heading to Latuvi, a small town perched high within a sea of mountains and known for its abundance of peaches and apples. Hours later I was hot and tired but motivated by the pulque tour and sweat lodge waiting for us at the end. However, when we made it to Latuvi that’s where it all ended. Or began. The poleo that Jose promised wouldn’t cause any harm decided otherwise.
Let’s just say we didn’t we didn’t make it to the pulque tasting, or the sweat lodge, or the hike the next day. In fact, we barely made it out of bed across the street for a few bites of soup—a soup which didn’t stay down long. To say we passed a fitful night is a drastic understatement. I can’t remember when I have felt so violently ill from head to toe, from inside out. All of me hurt. But there was nothing to do but wait out this strange plant’s toxic course, each minute equally as painful as the last.
That we survived is no surprise, as I am now writing this. But the day before starting my externship at the abortion clinic, I did some research about poleo and realized our story could have had a very different ending, a fatal one. Poleo, or pennyroyal, is a member of the mint family. My first search listed pennyroyal as a frequently used insecticide and pest repellant. For human use, it can cause serious damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system, even leading to death. In horror, I continued to read stories that could have been my own. Then something caught my eye: pennyroyal has a long tradition (talking thousands of years) of being used to induce abortions. And down the rabbit hole of google I went, reading histories of the role this herbal abortifacient played within women’s struggle for reproductive rights. I came across this one writing published by the blog The Toast:
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about pennyroyal and its contradictory implications for women’s health. It is a symbol of uniquely feminine knowledge, an herbal remedy whispered from mother to daughter, from sister to panicked sister. Pennyroyal is subversive, a means of taking control over one’s own reproductive system. Pennyroyal exists outside the masculine mainstream, in garden patches and teacups, and there is a power in that… But while pennyroyal has certainly saved women, it has killed women too. It is, absolutely and irrevocably, a signal of an antifeminist past that constantly threatens to break into the present.”
Yet, as I move among international borders, questions of past and present become relative matters. Here in Mexico is an interesting case: 31 of its 32 states maintain an antifeminist, antiabortion stance with restrictive abortion laws. Mexico City, within the state of Mexico, on the other hand, is the progressive outlier, where in 2007 all first-trimester abortions were decriminalized. Two steps forward, one step back; slowly but surely, the country seems to be moving toward a more progressive, feminist-oriented agenda.
Then I look at the United States, whose steps backward recently feel much larger than those forward. With the increasing attacks on women’s reproductive rights, the present seems to have done a roundabout to face the past rather than the future. As access to safe and legal abortion comes under threat, the days of pennyroyal and coat hangers no longer feel so far away.
If my experience with pennyroyal taught me anything it’s:
1. Carefully eat your greens (NOT unknown plants)!
2. Pennyroyal, despite its sweet name and pretty purple flowers, belongs in your garden, not your stomach.
3. It must never ever be an alternative for an abortion.
4. While it is, the struggle for women’s access to safe reproductive health care is one we must continue to fight.