Norethisterone (NET) has been used as a contragestational postcoital agent. It is biotransformed to 5 alpha dihydro-NET (5 alpha-NET) and 3 beta,5 alpha tetrahydro-NET (3 beta,5 alpha-NET) in target tissues. The participation of these metabolites in NET effects is unknown. We have examined the antiimplantation and antiprogestational effects of NET and its metabolites, in adult mated female rabbits, by assessing the number of implantation sites and the expression products of the uteroglobin (UTG) gene in the uterus, and by comparing them with those of RU-486 and estradiol. Steroids were daily administered s.c. at several doses for 7 consecutive days, starting 24 hr after coitus. To assure that fertilization occurred in all animals, the presence of early pregnancy factor was determined. The results demonstrated that high doses (5 mg/kg) of NET reduced both implantation and the expression of the UTG gene. On the other hand, lower doses (1.5 mg/kg) of 5 alpha-NET produced an antiimplantation effect and suppressed UTG synthesis and its mRNA. These effects were similar to those of RU-486. At lower doses (1 mg/kg), both estradiol and the estrogenic metabolite 3 beta,5 alpha-NET were also effective in inhibiting implantation and UTG gene expression. The overall results suggest that NET metabolites exert antiimplantation and antiprogestational effects through their interaction with progesterone and estrogen receptors, and provide an explanation for the molecular mechanisms involved in the postcoital contraceptive action of NET.