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An abortifacient is a substance that induces abortion.
The use of various herbs as abortifacients is a practice that predates history. Since humans of all cultures began using herbs as medicine, they have observed which herbs could lead to miscarriage and either shunned or embraced them as needs dictated. As the Catholic Church gained control of European society, women who dispensed abortifacient herbs found themselves classified as witches and were often persecuted (see witchhunt).
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.
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.
Prescription drugs used as abortifacients 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 regular abortion.
Emergency contraception (the "morning after pill"), such as Plan B or the Yuzpe regimen, is also considered an abortifacient by those who hold that pregnancy begins at conception, as it may prevent in some cases the implantation of an already fertilized egg. The same concern is sometimes even extended to regular birth control pills. Both American law and the medical community however make a firm distinction between contraception and abortifacients, and do not accept that emergency contraception is a form of abortion, nor do they accept that abortifacients are proper forms of contraception.
The methods of operation of these drugs are better understood than that of traditional herbal remedies.
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