Now that emergency contraception is available to everyone over the counter without a prescription, myths are flying thick and fast. Conservatives want to muddy the waters when it comes to understanding how emergency contraception works, and it’s important for you to know the facts on how this useful medication works — and how it doesn’t.
Myth: Emergency contraception causes abortion
This is one of the most common misrepresentations of emergency contraception, and also one of the most potentially dangerous. By arguing that emergency contraception is an abortifacient, abortion opponents hope to convince people not to use it, or to push for more controls on it to make it harder to access. That’s bad news for women who need contraception in a hurry.
Fact: Emergency contraception prevents pregnancy
Here’s how it actually works: emergency contraception prevents fertilization. If an egg is fertilized, emergency contraception cannot prevent implantation and subsequent pregnancy. Arm yourself with some science: this 2010 study, a 2007 study and a 2001 study, all in the journal Contraception. These studies looked at the mechanisms of emergency contraception, when and how it failed, and how women responded to it. What they found was that it was only effective when administered before ovulation, thereby preventing fertilization.
How come emergency contraception sometimes seems to work after ovulation? Well, for starters, only 50% of fertilized eggs manage to implant in the uterine lining. Once they get there, about 15% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, typically in the first trimester, notes the American Pregnancy Association. And that’s just known pregnancies: many more women miscarry and mistake it for an unusually heavy menstrual period. Miscarriage is an unfortunate and common pregnancy complication in the early weeks of pregnancy, and it’s not caused by taking emergency contraception.
Myth: Emergency contraception increases promiscuity
Some conservatives claim that birth control in general, along with emergency contraception, encourages promiscuity and risk-taking sexual behavior. The argument runs that women feel more comfortable having sex when their chances of pregnancy are reduced, and are willing to take more risks as a consequence.
Fact: Studies show that emergency contraception has no effect on sexual activity
One important question to ask when confronted with this argument is: who cares? The development of safe, effective birth control was a huge development in women’s rights, and women’s ability to control their own fertility is immensely valuable. If women were behaving more promiscuously as a result of access to birth control, that would be their own decision, and their right.
However, numerous studies indicate that availability of emergency contraception doesn’t have an effect on sexual activity and risk-taking behavior. Many users of emergency contraception report use of regular birth control methods that failed in some way, and do not report an increase in sexual behaviors with ready access to emergency contraception. Rates of infection with sexually transmitted infections, unprotected sex and other potential indicators of risk-taking behaviors remain stable in populations with and without access to emergency contraception, including teens.
The only thing ready access to emergency contraception appears to do is reduce the incidence of unwanted pregnancy, which means the medication is performing precisely as it should be.
Myth: Emergency contraception is dangerous
Fallback arguments when it comes to the availability of EC suggest that even if the above myths aren’t true, the medication is too dangerous for it to be sold over the counter to people who don’t know how to properly administer it, even when provided with clear directions in the packaging. Supporters of such arguments want to see access restricted on the grounds that it’s important to make sure the medication is used appropriately, even though this would make it harder for women to get the medication when they need it.
Fact: Emergency contraception is generally recognized as extremely safe — otherwise, the FDA wouldn’t approve it for OTC sale
This medication is extremely safe, and can in fact be used by patients who cannot use regular hormonal birth control due to concerns about blood clots and similar complications, because of the single dose format. In fact, clinical research points out that pregnancy poses more of a danger to women with underlying liver disease, thromboembolytic conditions, and other medical issues that usually preclude the use of hormonal birth control. It’s even safe while breastfeeding (with the exception of ella, which has a slightly different chemical formula), and can be used safely on multiple occasions.
The extremely low dose of hormonal contraception means that it’s unlikely to cause complications, although some patients notice spotting or bleeding, breast tenderness, nausea, fatigue, or abdominal pain. These symptoms usually resolve within 24 hours.
There’s only one situation in which EC isn’t safe, and that’s when a woman is already pregnant, as it could increase the risk of an infection, and wouldn’t be effective. For women seeking to terminate early pregnancies, it’s necessary to seek a medically supervised chemical abortion.
Myth: Emergency contraception is limited and hard to get
People are commonly under the impression that there are a limited number of brands available and that they’re expensive and difficult to obtain. People may believe that they have no options after unprotected sex or an incident in which a birth control method fails, when that’s actually not the case!
Fact: There are numerous options on the market, and thanks to the recent court decision, it’s easier to obtain than ever before
There are a range of emergency contraception brands to choose from, and pharmacies that stock this product usually carry several options for patients, including versions that can be taken within five days, not just one, of unprotected sex. It’s not a bad idea to keep some around the house if you’re regularly sexually active in case you need it, but if you do need EC, you don’t need to panic: you’ll be able to obtain pills in time for them to be effective.
Photo credit: Andreas Jacob