Emergency Contraception: (Almost) All Ages Access

This article discusses a mature topic. Our 17-year-old and younger readers are encouraged to read this with an adult.

When I was in high school, I remember getting so upset when my favorite band played a show that I wasn’t old enough to attend. It was like there was this cool, exclusive world that started at 18 or, even worse, 21.

I was reminded of this feeling when I heard about the recent decision from the FDA to allow Emergency Contraception (EC) to be sold over-the-counter to women 15 and older in the U.S. Before this decision, people under 17 needed a prescription to get EC.* Though many of us are still hoping for all-ages access, this decision is one step closer! Who knows…maybe in the future we’ll see more of these, too.

In this edition of “Ask Elizabeth” I’ll answer some reader questions about EC. Do you have a question that you’d like to see answered in this column? Send them to me at [email protected].

Q: Is EC the same as the abortion pill?

No, EC prevents pregnancy before it happens, while the abortion pill – also known as medication abortion – terminates a pregnancy. EC contains the same hormones as the birth control pill and will not cause an abortion, or any harm to the fetus, if a woman is already pregnant.

Q: I’ve heard that taking EC multiple times is bad for you. Is that true?

EC is meant to be used only in emergency situations, but some people have more than one emergency. There’s no limit on how many times you can take EC, and it will not harm your health if you take it multiple times. EC will continue to work, even if you’ve taken it before. And, it doesn’t have any effect on your ability to have kids in the future.

The main reason why EC is meant for emergencies only is that it’s not as effective as other forms of birth control. And, even though EC is safe to use multiple times, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • EC may have side effects.
  • EC doesn’t protect against STDs, including HIV.
  • EC is often more expensive than other methods of birth control.

If you find you need EC often, you may want to think about your current birth control method and what’s going wrong. Are you always forgetting to take your pills? Does the condom break a lot? Talk to your health care provider or visit your local Planned Parenthood for information.

Q: I’ve heard you can use other birth control methods as Emergency Contraception. How do I do that?

Yes. There are two other methods that are also safe and effective forms of EC—birth control pills and the copper IUD (Paragard).

If taken within 5 days of unprotected sex, certain brands of pills can work as EC, though they’re more effective if taken in the first 3 days. You can visit this website to get detailed information on how to use specific brands as EC. Using this method instead of EC pills is slightly less effective, reducing the chances of pregnancy by 75%, compared to 85-88% for EC pills.

The IUD can also be used as EC. It has to be inserted by a healthcare provider within 5 days of unprotected sex. It is 99.9% effective, even on day five, and can be left in as ongoing birth control for as long as you want, up to 12 years. To read more about IUDs, see my previous post.

Do you have questions that you’d like to see answered in this column? Send them to me at [email protected].

*Since this article was written, there has been a new (and very exciting!) decision about over-the-counter EC. The federal government will now allow women of all ages to purchase EC (both 1 and 2 pill versions) over-the-counter, without a prescription!

Photo Credit to Bedsider.org