The ‘Morning After’ Pill: How It Works And Who Uses It

NPR

February 6, 2012

Plan B is available over the counter for people 17 and older.

Access to emergency contraception has swirled at the center of a recent flurry of debate over insurance coverage. It’s a pill women can take if their birth control fails or they forget to use it.

The most popular brand of emergency contraception is called “Plan B One-Step.” You might better know it as the “morning after” pill. Today, about 10 percent of sexually active women say they’ve used it.

Katie Wilcox, a 20-something college graduate, is a typical example of who uses it. She’s working now and has a boyfriend. She’s used Plan B twice. The first time she was still in college.

“We kind of got caught up in the moment,” she says. “[We] woke up in the morning and decided that we needed to go get Plan B, because neither of us were ready for any sort of pregnancy.”

So Wilcox and her boyfriend headed to their local pharmacy. She presented ID and was able to buy Plan B without a prescription. (The age requirement to buy Plan B is 17, despite a recent push by the Food and Drug Administration to make it more accessible.) After that, Wilcox and her boyfriend decided to use condoms. Then one broke. Again, they turned to Plan B.

“I can’t even describe how important it was,” she says. “It’s an important option for girls at that age to have because … things happen.”

Wilcox didn’t get pregnant. Emergency contraception prevents pregnancy 89 percent of the time if women take it within three days of unprotected sex. And it’s very safe, causing only minor side effects, such as nausea or headache.

Dr. Katherine White says most of her patients take Plan B right away, but it can work even if they wait a lot longer. “Emergency contraception, or Plan B, can be very effective up to … five days after the act of unprotected intercourse,” says White, an obstetrician at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass.

Plan B is a synthetic dose of the hormone progesterone. It’s the same hormone that’s in typical birth control pills — but at a higher dose. It works primarily by stopping the ovaries from releasing an egg. No egg, no pregnancy.

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.