Feelings mixed on emergency contraception

Many women who value the option of over-the-counter emergency contraceptive pills for themselves may worry that it’s not a good idea for women in general, a small survey suggests.

Last year, U.S. regulators approved the emergency contraceptive Plan B as an over-the-counter option for women age 18 and older. Plan B pills contain the hormone progestin at higher doses than those used in standard birth control pills, and they can prevent pregnancy when taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.

The current survey, published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, was taken when Plan B was still available only by prescription.

All of the women had used an Internet service to get emergency contraception pills, and when surveyed, nearly all said they would have used non-prescription pills had they been available.

Yet fewer than half said they fully supported making emergency contraception available over-the-counter to everyone.

Many other women supported the idea of non-prescription pills, but expressed reservations. Often, they worried that easier access to emergency birth control would encourage other women - though not themselves - to be promiscuous or have more unprotected sex.

However, studies have found no evidence that the availability of prescription Plan B has encouraged risky sex, or that it’s unsafe, according to the authors of the new study.

“These data highlight the importance of educating the public about the safety of emergency contraception, and the lack of data supporting concerns that widely available emergency contraception will have a negative impact on sexual practices,” Dr. Justine Wu, the study’s lead author, told Reuters Health.

This message is particularly important now that adult women can get Plan B without a prescription, according to Wu, a clinical assistant professor at the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

She and her colleagues based their findings on a survey of 200 women who used a Princeton University-affiliated Web site and phone service set up to help women seeking emergency contraception.

Because the survey was taken before approval of non-prescription Plan B, many women said they’d used the service because they’d had trouble reaching their doctor to get a prescription. Some went directly to the Web in order to avoid such obstacles.

Over-the-counter Plan B should help eliminate such obstacles for many women, Wu’s team notes - though, they add, this does not include girls younger than 18, and women who can’t afford to pay for non-prescription pills.

In addition, many women may still want to talk to a health professional before using Plan B on their own. In this survey, 42 percent of women said that, were emergency contraception available over-the-counter, they would still want to talk with a health provider about using it.

Ideally, Wu said, this discussion should happen before women ever need Plan B, since the pills need to be taken within a narrow window of time.

SOURCE: Obstetrics & Gynecology, July 2007.

Provided by ArmMed Media