Emergency Contraception 101

Sometimes you find yourself in an “oopsie” moment. Your birth control method fails (the condom breaks, you forget to take your birth control pills, etc.), or you have sex with no protection at all. While in the moment it might seem like no big deal, the hours afterwards can bring that feeling of worry to your gut. What if I get pregnant? This was not the plan!

To find answers about pregnancy, options, or other risks (aka, if a condom has broken or you used no protection, your risk of STIs is increased as well), one of the best things to do is start out by contacting a medical professional—such as Choices Medical.

If you find yourself in that situation, you’re not alone. Many people have found themselves in similar positions, which led to the invention of emergency contraception (EC). You may have also heard it called Plan B or the morning-after pill. While many people are aware that emergency contraception exists, there are a lot of questions about how it works. Here are some common ones!*

What exactly does emergency contraception do?

Emergency contraception pills work mostly by releasing a short, strong burst of hormones into the body that prevent or delay ovulation (the release of an egg from the ovary). If no egg is released, it can’t be fertilized, therefore preventing the possibility of a pregnancy. Less commonly, emergency contraception may prevent fertilization of the egg by the sperm if ovulation has already happened. There is debate in the medical community about whether EC may also prevent implantation (attaching to the uterus, where a baby grows) of a fertilized egg.

Is emergency contraception the same as the abortion pill? 

No. RU-486, also known as the “abortion pill” ends an already-existing pregnancy. Emergency contraception is meant to prevent a pregnancy, the abortion pill is meant to terminate and physically expel a confirmed pregnancy.

Will I experience any side effects from using emergency contraception?

While it is highly unlikely for you to have any long-term side effects from using emergency contraception, you may have some side effects in the days or weeks after taking it. For example, since the pill works to delay ovulation, it may affect the timing of your next period or cause irregular bleeding in the week or month following taking EC pills. Some of the other short-term side effects of EC pills can include the following: headache, nausea and vomiting, breast tenderness, abdominal pain, dizziness, or fatigue.

How often can I use emergency contraception?

There is no evidence that taking emergency contraception will have any effect on future fertility or other long-term effects on your health. However, this is NOT intended to be a regular form of birth control—hence, why it’s called emergency contraception. There are a few reasons for this. For one, it is less effective than using regular forms of birth control (correctly and consistently) to prevent pregnancy. For two, while EC won’t have lasting harmful effects on your body, taking it multiple times (especially within the span of a few weeks or months) can turn your hormones upside-down, causing you temporary unpleasant side effects such as irregular bleeding and feeling emotionally unraveled.

Why is EC controversial?

Emergency contraception has a controversial history due to some of the ethical questions it raises. There are a few issues that legislators, healthcare providers, law enforcement, and consumers debate. One question that has been raised is whether easier availability of emergency contraception might lull people into being more careless about using birth control during intercourse, especially the use of male latex condoms. If condom usage is reduced, the transmission of STI’s is increased—which is already a public health crisis in the U.S.

Another ethical concern of EC is its use in the human trafficking industry as a tool of oppression. With nearly unlimited access to emergency contraception pills, sex traffickers (or abusive, manipulative partners) don’t need to visit a clinic to obtain them; they can simply purchase them in the local pharmacy or grocery store… which means no appointment required for the victim, no medical follow-up, and no chance for a medical professional to question the woman for her safety, her health, or her well-being. This intersects one of few chances victims may have to disclose trafficking or abuse in a safe environment away from the perpetrator.

Lastly, there is debate about whether emergency contraception can work to prevent an already-fertilized egg from implanting (and therefore growing) in the uterus. For those who define pregnancy as beginning at conception (rather than implantation), this can present a moral dilemma in the use of EC pills. While there is no scientific or medical proof that EC pills do work in this way, there is also no hard proof that they don’t—leaving a gray area for people to wrestle with.

Keep in mind that (via the Centers for Disease Control) the only 100% effective way to protect against an unplanned pregnancy is to not have sex. If you are experiencing a sexual health crisis, know that Choices Medial is here to help! Make an appointment today for free pregnancy testing, STI testing and treatment, or to speak with one of our medical professionals.

*Choices Medical does not provide or refer for emergency contraception.

Sources available upon request.

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