Facts About Emergency Contraception
What is emergency contraception?
Emergency contraception (EC or the "morning-after pill") can prevent pregnancy after unprotected sexual intercourse. EC can be used if contraception fails, if you have unplanned sex, or if you are forced to have sex.
The Federal Drug Administration approved EC for use up to 72 hours (three days) after unprotected or forced intercourse. But research shows it is safe and effective for up to 120 hours (5 days). However, you should take it as soon as possible because the sooner it is taken, the better it is at preventing pregnancy. The name “morning-after pill,” is misleading.
How effective is EC?
EC reduces the chance of pregnancy by 75-89%, but if used within 12 hours, it reduces the risk by up to 99%.
How EC works.
Like regular birth control pills, emergency contraception can prevent pregnancy by delaying ovulation (when eggs are released from the ovary) or preventing fertilization (when an egg and sperm join). Newer evidence indicates that EC may not have an effect after an egg is fertilized. Once an egg is attached, EC has no effect. EC prevents a pregnancy--it does not end one.
EC is often confused with the “abortion pill” (mifepristone or RU-486), which is taken up to nine weeks into pregnancy. Mifepristone causes abortion; EC does not.
Some women may take EC without realizing they are already pregnant. There is no evidence that EC will harm an established pregnancy. Babies born to women who continue taking birth control pills before finding out that they are pregnant do not have higher rates of birth defects.
EC is extremely safe.
Even women who cannot take oral contraceptives for birth control can take them for emergency contraception because they are only used for a brief period of time. The consensus in the medical community is that EC is so safe it should be available without a prescription to women of all ages. The American Medical Association and American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology believe that EC should be sold over-the-counter to all women.
Emergency contraception can prevent most pregnancies that would result from unprotected intercourse, but it is still not as effective as other contraceptive methods, and it does not prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Overall, EC reduces the risk of pregnancy by 75-89%. Regular oral birth control pills are 97-99.9% effective in preventing pregnancy. Male latex condoms are 97% effective if used correctly and consistently. A barrier method (such as a latex condom) is necessary to protect against sexually transmitted diseases.
Survivors of sexual assault and other women have been given birth control pills to prevent pregnancy for 40 years. The Food and Drug Administration approved the first pills specifically packaged for this purpose, in 1998. In 1999, the FDA approved Plan B, which causes fewer side effects. Although Plan B was approved as two doses taken twelve hours apart, recent studies have shown that it is more effective to take both doses together, as soon as possible.
There are several emergency contraception products. Plan B One-Step® and Next Choice® were approved for over-the-counter status in 2009 for persons ages 17 and older. A prescription for those under 17 is still required. Plan B® is in the process of being phased out.
The prescription requirement for minors is under review and may be changed or eliminated. For the most current status of minors' access to Plan B®, Plan B One-Step® and Next Choice® without a prescription as well as information on other EC options and providers, see the website www.not-2-late.com.
Click here to learn more about where EC is available.
Hospital emergency rooms provide medications to prevent sexually transmitted infections, counseling services and forensic evidence collection. Many hospitals also offer EC or prescriptions for EC. However, you must seek treatment within three to five days of the assault for EC to be effective. The hospital staff should offer to connect you with accompaniment services from the local rape crisis center. Ask for this free, confidential service.