In a new study, researchers found that about twice as many women used Plan B, a form of emergency contraception colloquially known as the “morning-after” pill, after it became available over-the-counter in 2006. Plan B has been on the market in the U.S. since 1999, but could only be accessed with a prescription, which was challenging for some women because it is only effective in the 72 hours after unprotected sex. Making the pill available OTC seems to have made emergency contraception a much more viable option.
Plan B reduces the risk of unplanned pregnancy after unprotected sex by stopping the ovaries from ovulating (releasing eggs). It also thins the lining of the uterus, which could theoretically stop a fertilized egg from implanting. The drug works much better if it’s taken quickly – after 12 hours, the risk of pregnancy increases by 12 percent. Experts are also quick to say that this contraception should only be used as a back-up method, if a routine form of birth control fails.
The researchers found, specifically, that of more than 6,300 sexually active women surveyed between 2006 and 2008, nearly 10 percent reported having used emergency contraception. This is striking compared to statistics from 2002, when only 4 percent reported having used Plan B.
“[Use] has more than doubled since the last time the data were collected,” observed Megan Kavanaugh, a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute in New York who worked on the study. But, she added, “its use still seems relatively low, given that it’s easy to access. So there’s room for improvement.”
Interestingly, the survey found no change in the proportion of women who said that their doctors had discussed emergency contraception with them, which was three percent. This could be a source of the puzzlement that Kavanaugh expressed over the fact that the use of emergency contraception was still relatively low. Although there was a good deal of media attention surrounding Plan B when it went OTC, and later in 2009 when it became available to 17-year-olds, women may not be aware of the fact that it exists, or that it is easily accessible. Women who are under the age of 17 still need a prescription.
The cost may also be a factor in its low use; Plan B can cost anywhere from $10 to $70, although it is generally less expensive at family planning clinics.
The fact that more women are using Plan B is good; however, it’s important to make sure that all women who need it are able to access it. This means lowering the cost wherever possible and educating women about how it works, where to get it, and when to take it. This is especially important because a new emergency contraceptive, which works for up to 5 days after unprotected sex instead of 72 hours, was approved by the FDA last summer. Women won’t be able to take advantage of this innovative, exciting move forward in contraceptive technology unless we work to make emergency contraceptives both affordable and accessible.
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