Emergency Contraception: Have We Come Full Circle?
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Two decades ago, Dr. Felicia Stewart, then serving as Medical Director of the Planned Parenthood affiliate in Sacramento California, began her campaign to let out of the closet "America's best-kept secret" - emergency contraception. The method had been suppressed because many providers thought the method was "not effective enough," or would lead women to use it "too much" (in place of using other more effective methods). Advocates disagreed, believing that emergency contraception could help some women prevent pregnancy, that women could learn to use the method appropriately, and that women had the right to this important option.
When Dr. Stewart and other women's health advocates pushed to move emergency contraception "from secret to shelf," they had women's needs in mind - in particular the need for a method that, unlike others, could be used after sex and one that was safe enough to provide without the barrier of a medical interface. The success of this twenty year effort is evident in the many dedicated emergency contraception products now available worldwide, the increase in women's awareness and use of EC, and, in the United States, the full-on direct to consumer marketing of emergency contraception by a pharmaceutical company, not to mention the popularity of the method among women.
Today, in the midst of this forward trajectory of increased access and awareness, we have encountered a curve ball that has us circling back to where we started. Recent analyses suggesting that emergency contraception is not as effective in reducing unwanted pregnancy rates at a population level as we once hoped seem to have put the brakes on funding and have revived the original arguments that emergency contraception is "not effective enough" to be promoted as an option and that women are "abusing" it, using it repeatedly instead of using other more effective methods. Some in the field have also again voiced concerns that by providing it directly to women we are missing opportunities to provide women with a full range of reproductive health services.
Our response to this recent round of questioning is that emergency contraception still fills a unique and important role in the mix of available contraceptive methods, that it is effective enough to be promoted as a contraceptive option, and that women's use of the method does not constitute a problem (in terms of lower effectiveness) but rather contributes in a positive way to every woman's significant challenge of how to avoid unplanned pregnancies over her lengthy fertile years.
Emergency Contraception Is Unique
Emergency contraception is unique and fills a much needed niche. It is the only method a woman can easily use post-coitally, thus occupying a very critical place in the array of currently available methods. The post-coital niche is important not only for women who have had no control over their exposure to sex, as in the case of sexual violence, but also for couples who find themselves in need of contraception after sex. The growing sales figures for emergency contraception in the United States and around the world suggest that significant numbers of women continue to need a post-coital method.
Some of the researchers who are concerned about the "low-efficacy" of oral emergency contraceptives are now trying to promote emergency IUD insertion as an alternative post-coital method. But the logistics and cost of obtaining it make it an unrealistic option for most women. And it ignores what many women tell us is the biggest appeal of emergency contraceptive pills - the convenience of being able to directly access the method without having to see a doctor or health care provider.