Clinical Updates in Reproductive Health

Induced fetal demise

Last reviewed: January 12, 2021


  • Induced fetal demise prior to medical abortion or dilatation and evacuation (D&E) at or after 13 weeks gestation does not increase the safety of abortion. However, there may be legal, facility or social reasons for inducing preprocedure fetal demise.

Strength of recommendation: Strong

Quality of evidence: Low


Some providers may induce fetal demise before medical abortion or D&E at or after 13 weeks gestation for a variety of reasons. Patients, providers or staff may prefer that fetal demise occurs before an abortion procedure (Jackson, Teplin, Drey, Thomas, & Darney, 2001) or it may be dictated by the facility’s practices. Additionally, induced fetal demise is one way to prevent transient fetal survival following a medical abortion.

Safety and efficacy of inducing fetal demise

A retrospective cohort study comparing women with digoxin injection prior to D&E with historical controls who did not receive digoxin showed an increase in complications, including more hospital admissions, extramural deliveries and infections in women who received digoxin (Dean et al., 2012). One case series including nearly 5,000 D&E abortions after digoxin injection found rates of extramural deliveries (0.3%) and infection (0.04%) that authors concluded were acceptably low (Steward, Melamed, Kim, Nucatola, & Gatter, 2012). A retrospective cohort study comparing women who underwent fetal intracardiac potassium chloride injection before D&E to women who did not undergo the additional procedure found that while procedure duration was decreased by 3.5 minutes when fetal demise was induced, there was an increase in women’s pain and in the incidence of uterine atony (Lohr, Parsons, Taylor, & Morroni, 2018).

Two retrospective comparative cohort studies measured th e effect of intracardiac potassium chloride on induction-to-abortion interval when administered before medical abortion. In one study with a gestational age range of 17-28 weeks, the induction-to-abortion interval was significantly shorter in women who received the injection (15 hours) compared to those who did not (19.9 hours) (Akkurt et al., 2018). A similar study among women with a mean gestational age of 21 weeks found no difference in time-to-abortion between those with pre-procedure potassium chloride for feticide (35 hours) versus those without (32 hours) (Sik, et al.).


Fetal demise can be achieved prior to abortion at or after 13 weeks by injecting potassium chloride or xylocaine directly into the fetal heart or digoxin into the fetus or amniotic fluid.

Potassium chloride/xylocaine: Potassium chloride or xylocaine injection requires skill in ultrasound guidance techniques and has more potential risk due to the possibility of maternal intravascular injection which can cause cardiac arrest (Borgatta & Kapp, 2011; Coke, Baschat, Mighty, & Malinow, 2004; Maurice, Letourneau, Benachi, & Jouannic, 2019). It is not recommended in a low-resource setting. 

Digoxin: Digoxin is injected either transabdominally or transvaginally (Tocce, Sheeder, Edwards, & Teal, 2013) 1-2 days before the planned abortion procedure.

In a pharmacokinetic study of eight women between 19-23 weeks who had intra-amniotic injection of digoxin 1mg prior to D&E, maternal serum digoxin levels were in the low therapeutic range and were not associated with cardiac changes (Drey, Thomas, Benowitz, Goldschlager, & Darney, 2000). A pilot randomized trial of intra-amniotic or intra-fetal digoxin at doses of 1mg or 1.5mg showed an overall rate of fetal demise of 87% with no difference in effectiveness based on the dose or route of administration (Nucatola, Roth, & Gatter, 2010). In a prospective cohort study of 59 women undergoing termination of pregnancy between- 21-30 weeks, digoxin 2mg administered intra-amniotically resulted in fetal demise for  more than 90% of cases, with no adverse maternal effects (Sharvit, et al., 2018).


Akkurt, M. O., Akkurt, I., Yavuz, A., Yalcin, S. E., Coskun, B., & Sezik, M. (2018). The Utility of Feticide Procedure to Shorten the Induction-to-Abortion Interval in Medical Abortion. Gynecology and Obstetric Investigation, 1-7. DOI: 10.1159/000491085.

Borgatta, L., & Kapp, N. (2011). Clinical guidelines. Labor induction abortion in the second trimester. Contraception, 84(1), 4-18.

Coke, G. A., Baschat, A. A., Mighty, H. E., & Malinow, A. M. (2004). Maternal cardiac arrest associated with attempted fetal injection of potassium chloride. International Journal of Obstetric Anesthesia, 13(4), 287-290.

Dean, G., Colarossi, L., Lunde, B., Jacobs, A. R., Porsch, L. M., & Paul, M. E. (2012). Safety of digoxin for fetal demise before second-trimester abortion by dilation and evacuation. Contraception, 85(2), 144-149.

Denny, C. C., Baron, M. B., Lederle, L., Drey, E. A., & Kerns, J. L. (2015). Induction of fetal demise before pregnancy termination: Practices of family planning providers. Contraception, 92(3), 241-245.

Drey, E. A., Thomas, L. J., Benowitz, N. L., Goldschlager, N., & Darney, P. D. (2000). Safety of intra-amniotic digoxin administration before late second-trimester abortion by dilation and evacuation. American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 182(5), 1063-1066.

Lohr, P. A., Parsons, J. H., Taylor, J., & Morroni, C. (2018). Outcomes of dilation and evacuation with and without feticide by intra-cardiac potassium chloride injection: a service evaluation. Contraception, 98, 100-5.

Maurice, P., Letourneau, A., Benachi, A., & Jouannic, J.M. (2019). Feticide in second- and third-trimester termination of pregnancy for fetal anomalies: Results of a national survey.  Prenatal Diagnosis, 39(13), 1269-1272.

Nucatola, D., Roth, N., & Gatter, M. (2010). A randomized pilot study on the effectiveness and side-effect profiles of two doses of digoxin as fetocide when administered intraamniotically or intrafetally prior to second-trimester surgical abortion. Contraception, 81(1), 67-74.

Sharvit, M., Klein, Z., Silber, M., Pomeranz, M., Agizim, R., Schonman, R., & Fishman, A. (2019). Intra-amniotic digoxin for feticide between 21 and 30 weeks of gestation: A prospective study. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 126(7), 885-889.

Sik, A., Bilecan, S., Kumbasar, S., Akpak, Y.K., & Aba, Y.A. (2019). Does feticide shorten termination duration in second trimester pregnancy termination? African Health Science, 19(1), 1544-1553.

Steward, R., Melamed, A., Kim, R., Nucatola, D., & Gatter, M. (2012). Infection and extramural delivery with use of digoxin as a feticidal agent. Contraception, 85(2), 150-154.

Tocce, K., Sheeder, J.L., Edwards, L.J., & Teal, S. (2013). Feasibility, effectiveness and safety of transvaginal digoxin administration prior to dilation and evacuation. Contraception, 88(6), 706-711.

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