Emergency contraceptives have been approved for use as a regular post-coital method in over 20 countries - including Canada, England, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and the United States. Research is ongoing by the World Health Organization, the Population Council. In 1997-FEB, "Plan B" was declared safe and effective by the US Food and Drug Administration. It is available over the counter without a prescription. Other forms of EC are restricted to women 17 years-of-age or older with proof of age identification, or require a prescription. The pills are sold specially packaged for emergency use in some countries.
How the pills work:
There are two common and unpleasant side-effects to these pills. About 50% of women develop nausea; 20% vomit. Some women experience headache, dizziness, cramping, tender breasts, and/or irregular bleeding. These do not generally last more than a day. "Advocates argue that the side effects are minor compared with the consequences of the estimated 2.7 million unwanted pregnancies every year in the United States." 2
In the unlikely chance that a woman takes the pills within the time limit after intercourse when they remain effective, and still becomes pregnant, one source states that "there is no reason to suspect that one time emergency use of the pills would be associated with birth defects." 3
Unfortunately, some women have learned the exact dosages of birth control pills required for emergency contraception, and are engaging in self-medication. The New York Times published an article in 1997 containing precise ECP dosages using various contraceptive pills. The Feminist Women's Health Center currently publishes a dosage and color of regular birth control pills to take in order to have similar results to EC pills. 4 This is not a safe technique. The procedure should be taken under the direction of a physician or pharmacist because of the slim possibility of serious side-effects.
Impact on abortions:
One source, the Alan Guttmacher Institute estimates that there are about 6.3 million unintended pregnancies each year. 5 The FDA predicted that if doctors and women adopt ECP, emergency contraception could prevent up to 2.3 million of these pregnancies every year in the U.S., and thus prevent up to one million abortions. This change would reduce the level of abortions to a small fraction of their present levels. A conference in India indicated that ECP could make a major impact at reducing that country's 11 million legal and illegal abortions each year. 6
Some argue that schools, public health agencies etc. should undertake a massive educational program promoting EC in the event of contraceptive failure or lack of use. The goal would be to reduce accidental pregnancies and the subsequent abortions. Some suggest that pharmacies make all types of EC freely available to persons aged 16 and older without prescription. This would make it easier for people to obtain EC on evenings and weekends, and thus be able to take the pills within a short time after unprotected sex.
However, Dr Gene Rudd, associate executive director of the Christian Medical Association, a pro-life group, suggested that if EC is available to teens then they might skip regular visits to their gynecologist. He said: "They're not going to get their pap smears; they're not going to get screened for sexually transmitted disease." 7
Various sources indicate that their efficiency is 74% or more; one study found 89% effectiveness. However, most women who take emergency contraceptive pills would not have become pregnant anyway. The number of women who take the pills and still become pregnant is only about 2%. One essay quotes a study which showed a pregnancy rate of only 1.2% for ECP, if the treatment is started within 12 hours of sexual intercourse. 8 Effectiveness rates of 99.4 and 99.9% have been reported for the two main IUD types. 9
However, research in the UK during 2011 indicates that EC is less effective among heavier women. The European manufacturer, Norvelco, has decided to add a warning to the label stating:
75 kg is equivalent to 165 pounds; 80 kg is equivalent to 176 pounds.
The identical drug in the U.S. and Canada is Plan B One Step, manufactured by Teva Pharmaceuticals. For heavier women who have experienced unprotected sex, the insertion of a copper IUD within seven days might be an effective backup option. 12
The medication appears to be safe when taken by active (i.e. not bedridden) women. 10The Consortium for Emergency Contraception suggests that women who are:
The "progestin only" pills might be a better choice for such women. No deaths or serious complications have been reported in the approximately 25 years that the pills have been used. The World Health Organization, International Planned Parenthood Federation, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have all found ECP to be safe and effective.
Other EC factors:
Some groups claim that if the ECP were generally available, that some women would stop using her regular birth control technique and rely on the ECP instead. This is unlikely, because:
A study in Finland showed that "No respondents reported using emergency contraception as their only contraceptive method." 11
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