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The Surprising Possible New Source for Emergency Contraception

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist and writer specializing in sexual and reproductive health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham ...

Is a plant-based folk medicine the future of emergency contraception?

In the days before we had a reliable, FDA-approved birth control pill, women attempted to control their fertility with a wide range of substances, including herbal options. Now, new research shows that one of those contraceptive folk remedies may have some science behind it.

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A plant-based, nonsteroidal chemical — used in traditional Chinese medicine — has been shown effective in preliminary research at preventing the sperm and egg from meeting — a key part of fertilization. These substances were found to be effective at low doses, which may make them alternatives to existing hormone-based contraceptives, which sometimes come with annoying side effects.

The chemical works by subduing the sperm’s “power kick” — which is the actual scientific name and not something out of an ‘80s karate movie — preventing its little sperm tail from whipping it forcefully toward and into the egg.

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Researchers see this chemical as being an option in emergency contraception taken either before or after sex or in the form of something more permanent, like a skin patch or vaginal ring. Fun fact: It takes human sperm around five to six hours to mature once they land inside a woman, which should be enough time for the chemical to work its magic and stop the power kick.

On top of all that, this plant-based chemical could mean a new type of emergency contraception (which is typically taken after unprotected sex). Some people who are opposed to Plan B — the existing emergency contraceptive option — are not fans of the fact that it prevents the implantation of a possibly viable fertilized egg. (For them, the morally tricky part is the getting rid of the fertilized egg.) But if this new type of emergency contraceptive were available, that wouldn’t be an issue, as it would prevent the sperm from fertilizing the egg in the first place. Plus, it’s vegan!

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But don’t get off the pill just yet — we still need a cost-effective source of the chemicals, as they exist in very low concentrations in their wild plants of origin. And as a friendly reminder, just because something is marked as "natural" or "holistic" or is a well-known folk remedy, it doesn't necessarily mean it works or is safe.

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