WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — News of a 20-year-old woman who was arrested after telling police she drank an over-the-counter herbal tea to induce an abortion, then tossed her fetus in the garbage, shed light on a naturopathic "remedy" commonly known and relied upon across upper Manhattan.
The tea — which goes by the name hierba de ruda, or just ruda — is made from a batch of strong-smelling, leafy green plant stalks, which cost approximately $3 at botanicas, or traditional Latino apothecaries found throughout Washington Heights and Inwood and staffed by by santeras, or Caribbean Santería priestesses.
And it's as common and easily available as a bottle of ibuprofen, as Yaribely Almonte, 20, allegedly found before her arrest. The Washington Heights woman told police that she drank the tea on Nov. 29, then delivered a stillborn fetus which she placed in an alley behind her apartment building on 191st Street, according to Deputy Inspector Barry Buzzetti, the Commanding Officer of the 34 precinct.
The tea is made from a non-edible plant, called ruta graveolens, that's grown in the Caribbean and in gardens throughout Europe. The plant has been used worldwide to induce abortion, according to the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine.
And for many women in the largely Catholic, largely Dominican community above 155th Street, the tea is a more appealing option than a trip to a family planning clinic amid taboos against abortion, coupled with the stigma of unwanted pregnancies.
Eva Hernandez-El Fayed, the director of youth programming at the Urban Media Masters program at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, can relate to to that fear and confusion — she was once one of those girls, and used tea prescribed by a santera to terminate a pregnancy when she was in her early 20s.
"It’s cultural," said Hernandez-El Fayed, 28, who said she has worked with many women who find themselves resorting to quiet acts of desperation in the face of unwanted pregnancies.
"She's not going to see a doctor," she added. "In this culture, the value placed on family is the highest that you could possibly think of, so she's going to be forced to make difficult decisions."
Hernandez El-Fayed said unwanted pregnancies and abortion are so abhorrent to the community that women who are forced to choose between keeping the child and ending the pregnancy are "not only going to be demonized by outsiders, but by her own community. She's going to be dealing with it from both sides."
Many young women she works with have taken over-the-counter pills or drank teas recommended by Santeras to end pregnancies, she said. Some feel trapped because they don't have health insurance or Medicaid, which allows access to a pharmacist for the morning-after pill.
DNAinfo visited several botanicas in Washington Heights and asked the women behind the counter for remedies to end a pregnancy. The answers ranged from one woman who recomended drinking a tea made of hierba ruda to end the pregnancy; while another said the herbal remedy was only useful to "bring on a woman’s period;" and yet another warned against consuming the tea in any form as it would be too dangerous.
"We would never have someone drink that, it could be dangerous." said the santera, who only gave her first name, Flor, in Spanish. She said she advises women to bathe in the water from the tea, for "spiritual healing" purposes only.
But women who came to Flor’s narrow shop filled with religious icons, statues and altars seeking one-on-one counseling for issues ranging from love, to luck, to business, said they knew of other botanicas and santeras who regularly prescribe a mix of herbal remedies for terminating pregnancies.
They said santeras suggest those types of remedies because they leave the result "in God's hands."
Another santera suggested purchasing Humphreys #11, an over-the-counter homeopathic pill usually sold for less than $10 at local pharmacies. The pills were on back order recently at many neighborhood drug stores.
The packaging for Humphrey's #11 said it contains black cohosh, wind flower and sepia — herbs women have used to end pregnancies for generations — but is meant to help with symptoms related to "delayed menses."
Richard Harper, a spokesman for Humphrey's, rejected the idea that the product can help end a pregnancy.
"I have had people ask if it will do that and I’ve told them that no, it will not," he said. "It is not intended to bring on a delayed menses or stop a delayed menses, it is only meant to reduce symptoms."
Harper said the company is reevaluating the product due to low sales and may stop carrying it in 2012.
Dr. Anne Davis, an OBGYN who runs a federally funded family-planning clinic in Washington Heights and heads up the Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health advocacy group, remains skeptical at the efficacy of drinking teas to terminate pregnancies. But she regularly meets women at her clinic who have tried to use tea for that reason.
"The trouble is that oftentimes people who are giving out the stuff know very little about the people they are giving it to, because there is little exchange of information and secrecy," she said. “Problems stemming from that could impact the woman’s health.”
Davis said clinics such as the Audubon Family Planning Practice where she works offer young women standard and safe medical care. Even so, she recognizes walking into a doctor's office can be more difficult for some women than the actual procedures performed there.
"We see thousands of patients a year, but many of them may have a very hard time looking for services they need and difficulty approaching the right people because of fear of stigma,” Davis said. "There are a lot of barriers we all need to work through."
At Flor's botanica, one woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she asked a santera for help 29 years ago when she became pregnant after having already had three children. She drank a hot drink of plantain peel and guava juice, immediately began having cramps and put down the drink.
"Each day that I look at my son," she said, "I thank God that I didn't go through with it."