In that episode towards the end of the season, Santos Chaj (Melinna Bobadilla), a Guatemalan woman in Litchfield's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holding pen, is desperately trying to communicate, but no one understands Ki'che, the indigenous language she speaks. She eventually ends up in the medical unit sobbing, with severe abdominal pain and period spotting, where she's finally granted a translator. It's revealed then that she was raped, so she drank an herbal tea made with parsley in an attempt to have an abortion.
While the full scope of Chaj's plan is revealed over two episodes, it's actually a common rumour that parsley may be able to act as an abortifacient. In certain fringe herbalist circles, parsley is thought of as an "emmenagogue herb," meaning it supposedly can trigger menstruation. Given the growing restrictions on access to safe medical abortions here in the U.S. and abroad (worldwide, more than 25 million women obtain unsafe, illegal abortions each year), it's not surprising that people feel the need to lean on unproven or unreliable home remedies. It also makes this episode's plot line yet another example of the type of storytelling that puts under-covered aspects of women's lived experiences at the centre that's characteristic to OITNB.
Parsley tea, specifically, is often recommended on internet message boards. Some claim that ingesting large quantities of parsley tea can cause a miscarriage, while others insert the herb vaginally using a homemade suppository to achieve this result. Although this home remedy is talked about online, it hasn't been studied. The findings from a small 2003 study on abortion-causing herbs were deemed inconclusive, but suggested "the ingestion of plants to induce abortion involves the risk of severe morbidity and mortality."
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists echos this sentiment. The organization told VICE in 2016 that: "ACOG does not consider herbal abortion as an appropriate way to end a pregnancy. A doctor would never recommend it." Apiol, the compound behind parsley's period-inducing properties, is an irritant and can be toxic, leading to liver and kidney damage when taken in high doses, according to the National Library of Medicine.
While this might seem like a far-fetched plot, it holds a mirror to the harsh reality of the state of reproductive rights around the world. We know that highly restrictive laws are associated with unsafe abortions. Just last year, a woman in Argentina died after attempting to induce a miscarriage using parsley tea. In Argentina, abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, incest, or when a person's life is in danger. Each year, between 4.7% - 13.2% of maternal deaths can be attributed to unsafe abortion, according to the World Health Organization.
In the end, the tea doesn't work, so Fig (Alysia Reiner) finds a way to get Chaj an abortion pill. This particular episode ended on a hopeful note, but it serves as a poignant reminder that not every person in prison has a Fig to advocate for their health and safety.