We have produced a briefing describing the importance of emergency contraception and discussing the options available and barriers to their use.
There are two varieties of emergency hormonal contraception pills commonly used. Popular references to “the morning-after pill” conflate the two options and perpetuate misconceptions. Many mistakenly believe the pills must be taken within 24 hours of sex — in fact the two choices are different in regard to the number of days after intercourse during which they are effective and the number of times the pills can be used during a menstrual cycle.
Emergency hormonal contraception pills are readily available over the counter, but their cost can be prohibitive. Many medical experts believe women should be given an advance supply for free by their doctors.
A less commonly known option for emergency contraception is the intrauterine device (IUD), which can be fitted as many as five days after intercourse and left in place to serve as a long-acting reversible contraceptive. Much of the need for emergency contraception is driven by use of somewhat unreliable methods of contraception such as condoms — the IUD is a good solution. Despite being highly effective, IUDs remain relatively rarely used.
Emergency contraception unfortunately remains a symbol of shame for many women. According to Abigail Fitzgibbon, the head of advocacy of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the discussion with health service providers about current contraceptive use involved in requesting emergency contraception very often leaves women feeling “lectured, told off and humiliated”.
Studies have shown that use of emergency contraception does not reduce use of regular contraception — emergency contraception instead simply provides an important safety net.
To reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, a range of contraceptive methods and means of addressing contraceptive failure must be employed.