Fact Sheet on Emergency Contraception (2001)

What is Emergency Contraception (EC)?

Emergency contraception (EC) is a safe, effective back-up birth control method that can prevent pregnancy after unprotected intercourse or contraceptive failure – like a broken condom. The most common form of EC is emergency contraceptive pills, which contain high dosages of the same hormones found in daily birth control pills – estrogen and progestin. A woman takes a dose of EC within 72 hours of unprotected sex, followed by a second dose 12 hours later.

Is EC the Same Thing as the “Morning-After Pill”?

Because EC can help reduce the risk of pregnancy after sex, some people like to call it the “morning-after pill.” Actually, a woman can take her first dose of EC up to 72 hours – that’s 3 days – after unprotected intercourse or birth control failure. And the process of using EC involves taking two doses of the pills, twelve hours apart.

EC should not be confused with Mifeprex, also referred to as RU-486. EC and Mifeprex are completely different drugs. EC helps to prevent pregnancy, while Mifeprex terminates an early pregnancy.

What Kinds of Emergency Contraceptive Pills are Available in the U.S.?

There are now two “dedicated” emergency contraception products currently marketed in the U.S. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first – Preven, containing a combination of estrogen and progestin – in September 1998. A second product, Plan B, was approved by the FDA in July 1999; it contains just progestin. There are also about a dozen brands of daily birth control pills on sale here that can be used as emergency contraception (see www.not-2-late.com for a complete list).

How Do Emergency Contraceptive Pills Work?

EC prevents pregnancy the same way that the daily pill does: by delaying or inhibiting ovulation, inhibiting fertilization, or preventing implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus. All of these events occur before the beginning of pregnancy, which medical science defines as the implantation of a fertilized egg in the lining of a woman’s uterus; implantation typically begins five to seven days after fertilization. EC does not interrupt a pregnancy. In fact, it will not work if a woman is already pregnant.

How Effective is EC?

Emergency contraceptive pills containing only progestin reduce the risk of pregnancy after unprotected intercourse by 89 percent; combined estrogen-progestin pills reduce the risk by 75 percent. Recent clinical data also shows that the sooner a woman takes EC, the more effective it is.

Keep in mind, an 89 percent reduction in the risk of pregnancy does not mean that 11 percent of women using EC will become pregnant. Rather, it means that, if 100 women take EC after having unprotected sex in the second or third week of their menstrual cycles, only one will become pregnant. Without EC, eight of the 100 women, on average, would have become pregnant.

Are There Any Side Effects Associated With Emergency Contraceptive Pills?

Some women using EC may experience temporary side effects, which include nausea, vomiting, and breast tenderness. These symptoms are more common with Preven and other combined estrogen-protestin pills than with the regimen using Plan B or other progestin-only pills. There are no known serious side effects of emergency contraceptive pills. If a woman who is already pregnant takes ECPs, there are no known risks to the developing fetus.

Why Would a Woman Need Emergency Contraceptive Pills?

There are about 3 million unintended pregnancies each year in the United States. Just over half of these happen to women who are using a regular method of contraception. Despite the many highly effective birth control options women have to choose from, none is 100% perfect. And sometimes, mistakes happen – a condom breaks, a diaphragm slips, a woman forgets to take her pill. Or she has sex when she didn’t plan to – or want to. Researchers estimate that roughly half of the unintended pregnancies in the U.S. could be prevented by widespread awareness and use of EC.

Sadly, one of the most compelling reasons a woman might need EC is in the case of rape. Each year, thousands of American women are the victims of this violent crime. By offering a woman the option of taking EC, health care providers can help to eliminate at least one trauma associated with rape – the prospect of an unwanted pregnancy.

Where Can Women Get EC?

Emergency contraceptive pills are available in the U.S. only by prescription. A woman can get EC – or a prescription for the pills – from any physician and many other reproductive health care providers. Most clinicians require a woman to come in for an office visit before prescribing emergency contraception. However, some women’s health specialists are exploring ways to provide EC to women who cannot get to their provider within the 72-hour window they have for using this back-up birth control method.

In a limited number of states, women are able to obtain EC directly from a pharmacist without having to visit a clinic or health care provider first. In Washington, there are drug therapy management agreements between individual physicians and pharmacists to provide EC. A new California law will allow pharmacists to provide EC starting this spring, and several other states are exploring similar options to increase access to EC.

Where Can Women Get More Information?

There is an automated, 24-hour-a-day, toll-free hotline (1-888-NOT-2-LATE or the Spanish pneumonic, 1-866-en-tres-dias) and an Emergency Contraception Website www.not-2-late.com. Both also provide guidance about where to get EC in a given area.

Source: “Back Up Your Birth Control” unites more than 100 national and local medical organizations and women’s health advocacy groups to promote awareness of emergency contraception. This campaign is being coordinated by the non-profit Reproductive Health Technologies Project.


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