Emergency Contraception: Safe and Effective Options for Preventing Pregnancy After Unprotected Sex

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Emergency contraception (EC) is a means of preventing pregnancy after unprotected sex or sexual assault. It is sometimes referred to as the “morning-after pill,” but this term is misleading because some forms of emergency contraception can be effective up to 120 hours (five days) after sex. It is most effective when taken within 12 hours of unprotected sex. Several hormonal medications, as well as the Copper IUD, can be used for emergency contraception.[1]

Until recently, legal barriers based on ideological opposition to EC, not medical science, severely restricted teen access. But in 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that one EC product, Plan B One-Step®, would be available on store shelves for purchase by women and men of all ages.[2] Other methods are available from pharmacists (“behind the counter”) or by prescription (see Table 1). The Affordable Care Act (ACA) partially addresses another significant barrier, cost, by requiring that prescription methods of birth control be covered by insurance.[3] Young women still must pay the full cost of Plan B One-Step® because over-the-counter medications are not covered under the ACA ruling.[3]

Although emergency contraception significantly reduces the chance of an unintended pregnancy, and there is no limit to the number of times a woman can safely use EC, most experts agree that it should not be considered a primary method of birth control because it is not as effective as other methods.[1] Also, EC offers no protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV – so those who need EC should also consider consulting a healthcare provider for testing.

Young women who have had unprotected sex or been sexually assaulted, and do not wish to become pregnant, should be aware of their options.

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