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An abortifacient is a substance that induces abortion.



The ancient Greek colony of Cyrene at one time had an economy based almost entirely on the production and export of Silphium, a powerful abortifacient in the parsley family. Silphium figured so prominently in the wealth of Cyrene that the plant appeared on the obverse and reverse of coins minted there. Silphium, which was native only to that part of Libya, was overharvested by the Greeks and was effectively driven to extinction.

As the Catholic Church gained control of European society, women who dispensed abortifacient herbs found themselves classified as witches and were often persecuted. [1]

Present time

Herbal abortifacients

Many herbs sold "over the counter" today, including Wild carrot, Black cohosh, Pennyroyal, Nutmeg, and Mugwort, are themselves abortifacients. Typically the labeling will contraindicate use by pregnant women, but will not contain an explanation for this contraindication. There are naturally occurring abortifacients like green Papaya and Common Rue though there does not seem to be any available data on their efficacy.

King's American Dispensatory of 1898 recommended a mixture of brewer's yeast and pennyroyal tea as "a safe and certain abortive"

Pharmaceutical abortifacients

The methods of operation of prescription drugs used as abortifacients are better understood than those of traditional herbal remedies, but they have been controversial since the 1980s. The most prominent of these is Mifepristone (also known as "RU-486" and marketed under the brand name "Mifeprex"), which is used in conjunction with Misoprostol (an anti-ulcer drug marketed under the name "Cytotec"). Mifepristone has been approved for inducing abortions in many Western countries since the late 1990s, while this use of Misoprostol is off-label.

Misoprostol alone is sometimes used for self-induced abortion in Latin American countries where legal abortion is not available, and by some immigrants from these countries in the United States who cannot afford a legal abortion.

Pre-implantation labeling controversy

There is controversy as to whether a woman is pregnant at the time of fertilization, or at the implantation of the blastocyst in the uterine lining. Some agents have a proposed back-up effect of preventing implantation and thus destroying the blastocyst, although their primary effect is to prevent fertilization. American federal and British laws mark the beginning of pregnancy at implantation; thus, these agents are labeled as contraceptives, rather than abortifacients. They are generally not effective if taken after implantation.[2] Labeling of these agents as abortifacient is most ardently supported by those opposed to abortion, [3] usually due to their belief that human life begins at fertilization. The following agents may prevent implantation of a blastocyst, although, in most cases, they merely prevent fertilization:[4]

  • Hormonal contraceptives
    • Combined estrogen & progesterone:
      • Combined oral contraceptive pill ("The Pill")*
        Contraceptive patch
        Contraceptive vaginal ring
        Lunelle (monthly injection)
    • Progesterone used alone:
      • Progesterone only pill (POP)*
        Depo Provera (injection every three months)
        Implants (such as Norplant or Implanon)
        IntraUterine System ("IUS")
  • Intrauterine device ("IUD")*
  • Some herbal contraceptives may work primarily by preventing implantation

(*) These methods may also be used as Emergency contraception. POPs are also packaged for use as emergency contraception under the brand name "Plan B".


  1. ^ Kramer, Heinrich, & Sprenger, Jacob. (1487). Malleus Maleficarum. (Montague Summers, Trans.). Retrieved June 3, 2006.
  2. ^ Vivian M. Dickerson (June 2005). Emergency Contraception: Out of Sight, Out of Mind? (PDF). Advanced Studies in Medicine, Vol. 5, No. 6 pp. 283-284. Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine. Retrieved on 2006-08-03.
  3. ^ Finn, J.T. (2005-04-23). "Birth Control" Pills cause early Abortions. Pro-Life America Facts on Abortion. Retrieved on 2006-08-25.
  4. ^ Abortion Facts. Center for Bio-Ethical Reform. Retrieved on 2006-08-03.

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