Lemon, baking soda, onions: Ending a pregnancy at home

Author: Mano Svanidze

Disclaimer: The following text includes detailed descriptions of how some women have attempted to abort pregnancies at home. These methods are not effective and could cause grievous bodily harm. Readers should seek professional medical advice on issues related to contraceptives and pregnancies."

Onion in your underwear. Boiled water on your belly. A glass of milk spiked with iodine. 

For generations, Georgian women have depended on folk medicine and superstitions to end unwanted pregnancies when abortions were illegal or simply inaccessible. 

Today, abortion in Georgia is legal. But increased barriers – including cost, access and basic education about the service – means women are resorting to other means to end unwanted pregnancies.  

Women are often pushed to seek an abortion out of poverty, according to a study by the Georgian women’s association, Hera XXI.  
If they don’t have enough money to care for a child, they often don’t have the resources to pay for an abortion, either, Hera XXI found. Abortion is not covered by insurance and, at some clinics, it can cost more than the average monthly salary. 

Other barriers include gynecologists refusing to provide the service and difficulty reaching clinics that offer abortions. 
When deprived of access to a clinic or doctor, women turn to self medication and folk methods. 

"I am a few days pregnant and I want to end the pregnancy. I have a lot of reasons why I can’t have this baby.  I do not have enough money to go to the doctor. Is there anybody who could share their experience on how to perform an abortion at home? I was told that there is some medicine…" Georgian user's post on social media

Home 'remedies' for unwanted pregnancies are legion, passed down by generations of women. As a child, for example, I heard that spreading a mixture of pepper and mashed onion can cause a fetus to "fall". I have also known women who tried extreme measures to end a pregnancy, like an acquaintance who couldn't stand the idea of a sixth child. Out of fear of her abusive husband, she decided to jump in a river in the hopes the impact would cause a miscarriage.

“I used to drink milk with iodine a lot to avoid pregnancy or end it early on,” notes 62-year-old Lia (not her real name). 

She saw abortion as her only option following two complicated births.  “I was afraid that if I risked having a third baby I might have left these two as orphans,” she says.  

C vitamin vials are another inexpensive way to deal with pregnancy, according to Lia. “Three or four vials at once over the course of a few days. The higher the dosage, the better it works. Then bleeding starts. How well it works depends on the person as well. It didn’t work for me, but my friends, university mates and neighbors have often used it very successfully,” she says.

Sitting in a hot water was also common practice to make a more hostile environment for the fetus. “It’s not the most effective method, but we were using it, combined with milk with iodine for example. The water should be very hot and the longer you sit, the better the chances that it will work,” Lia says.

“My mother used to put baking soda on a wet finger and stick it in the vagina to irritate the uterus, so it couldn’t hold the fetus. I have tried it only once. The burning feeling was so strong, it almost killed me,” Lia recalls.

Milk with the iodine was the most popular method around Lia. “It was the cheap and effective,” she says. She used to mix 15-20 drops of iodine in 50g of milk and drink it two or three times a day when she was afraid that she could be pregnant.

“Sometimes if they would start bleeding, and doctors [illegally performing the abortion] wouldn’t have blood or some necessary things with them. They couldn’t bring it from the hospitals because it was a secret that they were providing abortions. So they couldn’t help these women,” she recalls.
“One of my best friends had 38 abortions. But she always managed to do it in the hospital under the proper care because she had contacts. I’m so happy she survived.”

Data on abortion-related deaths in Georgia was not available on the state statistics agency website.

Gynecologist Khatuna Sokhadze notes that today, the most common way to end a pregnancy is to take pills. Women often take them without consulting a physician, however, which is dangerous. Instead of taking just one pill—already a potent dose—some take several, Dr. Sokhadze notes. 
She notes that frequently when women come to her after unsuccessfully trying to end their pregnancies at home. 

Dr. Sokhadze adds that ideally, people will start using contraceptives more frequently, which would reduce the need for abortions—and the chance women will harm themselves attempting to end pregnancies at home.
But that requires education and access to contraceptives, which have traditionally been unpopular in Georgia.

65-year-old Naira (not her real name) ended up having 13 abortions after barely surviving her first pregnancy.
“Abortion isn’t good. There is a feeling that you ended a life and the terrible feeling of guilt. But I felt so bad during my pregnancies that there was no other way. I was afraid I wouldn't survive,” she says.
“There were ways to have an abortion while asleep, but I was afraid that I wouldn’t wake up... So I used to use local anesthesia. I was so stressed during the pregnancy that I felt relieved as soon as I was on the table, despite the physical pain, just knowing that I wasn’t pregnant anymore.”
Naira eventually learned about birth control pills but she says the stigma against using them—the idea that you were actively trying not to have more children—made them unpopular.
“I took them occasionally, but I got pregnant anyway. To take the pills wasn’t acceptable for Georgians. And you couldn’t buy them without feeling you were judged, which would make you feel ashamed.”
Lia agrees that while contraceptives were available during the Soviet Union—they were even supplied free of charge—they were imported, which made people think they were bad, and as a rule, women did not use them.

“You know when you use these folk methods, you don’t really think about death…and of course you couldn’t give birth every time you got pregnant,” Lia notes.
“During my time those pills were free… We used to believe that these pills were bad. Like when we were kids and we were not allowed to take chewing gum from the foreigners, as it was [believed to be] poisonous. Just as we believed that anything given to us by foreigners would be poisoned, we used to believe that these pills were bad.”
Men, as Lia recalls, were more likely to use them when they had affairs, to avoid the “headache” of unwanted pregnancies out of wedlock.
Instead, some women turn to folk remedies to avoid getting pregnant. One 58-year-woman advised putting a slice of lemon in one’s vagina before sex.

“If you put the lemon in before sex, the sperm will not stay there,” Lamara says (name is changed).

These methods are not unique to Georgia: from ancient times women have tried different methods to end pregnancies. Diving, climbing, jumping and stomach massages have all been promoted at one time or another, as have herbs and pills. 

During the first years of the Soviet Union, however, women could legally get an abortion during the first trimester of her pregnancy. While that policy was reversed by Stalin in 1936, abortion was legalized again after his death. 

In 1950-1960, the Soviet Union had the highest registered abortion rates in the world.

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, family planning and contraceptives were gaining popularity, however.

But newly independent Georgia lacked access to contraceptives and women increasingly turned to abortion as a form of birth control. That became dangerous, however, in the 1990s, when officially abortions were only available when the life of the woman was in danger.

As a result, women died trying to have abortions at home, notes Lia. 

“I haven’t used onion with the pepper, it wasn’t the most common method for girls around me, but I knew that some women did. For me it sounded too unbearable.” – comments Lia

In folk medicine, a number of herbs were commonly used as abortifacients, for instance by drinking a pinch of the herbs or inserting them in the vagina.

“Jump, jump, in a way that your legs touch your bottom,’ my friend would say to me,” recalls Lamara.

Chocolate was also used as a method in the early stage of the pregnancy. “When my mother would start eating a lot of chocolate, we knew she might be pregnant,” notes 25-year- old Nino (not her real name).

A slice of lemon placed in one’s vagina before sex was also used as a method of contraception. “If you put the lemon in before sex, sperm will not stay there,” Lamara says (name is changed).

While more women are using birth control pills in Georgia today (usage quadruped between 2000 and 2014), education and access remain a problem, according to a 2017 report by Hera XXI, Myths and prejudices about modern methods of contraception in West and South regions of Georgia.

The report noted that most people questioned preferred condoms (42 percent) and traditional forms of family planning like observing the menstrual cycle (25 percent).

Focus groups also expressed fear that birth control pills and other modern methods could cause health problems, including infertility. 

“Asked why they are not using other modern contraceptives, and why they prefer the above methods, almost all focus groups responded: "These methods are safe, and we do not have enough information about other remedies and therefore we are not sure about their safety and effectiveness."


My Body, My Choice