The Truth About Emergency Contraception

By Jennifer Hanes, D.O.

Did the condom break?  Forget to take your birth control pills?

As an emergency physician I have cared for many women who are unsure of options to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex.  I have been surprised how few women are aware of their options despite information that is readily available on the internet.

Even more surprising, was learning that a fellow health care provider, who specializes in women’s health, was unaware of these options.  I have seen and heard lots of crazy methods for preventing pregnancy which usually only harm the mother.  Clearly, there is a need to be informed.  And while this issue may never affect you directly, it might be beneficial for a friend or loved one in the near future.

The “morning-after” pill is available without a prescription.  You read that correctly.  For the past several years women ages seventeen and older may purchase emergency contraception without a prescription.  If you are like most women, you probably did not know this.  You are not alone.

There are different brands of post-intercourse pills available ranging from a single pill to four pills taken two at a time spaced twelve hours apart.  The indication is to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex.  The pills must be taken within seventy-two hours after intercourse and the closer the timing to intercourse, the less chances of becoming pregnant.

There are not a lot of studies to examine the statistics of emergency contraception, but it appears the average rate of conception decreases from 8% without any intervention to less than 1% with the use of these “morning-after” pills.  I am not an attorney, but it does appear that a pharmacy or individual pharmacist may exercise the right to not sell these medications secondary to religious beliefs.  However, this hurdle is easily overcome simply by entering the words “emergency” and “contraception” into an internet search.

Multiple sites have pharmacy locators to enter your zip code and find a nearby pharmacy that stocks the pills.  Or, if the internet is unavailable, you could just call the individual pharmacy and ask.  In case the consumer is too embarrassed to ask the pharmacist, these same websites even offer a professional form that may be handed to the clerk to obtain the drug.  Again, the only time a prescription is required is for women under seventeen years of age.

As an emergency room physician, I have also cared for many women seeking help after sexual assault who have also heard myths about medical treatment in the ER.  When reporting this crime and consenting to an examination, she is not held responsible to pay the medical bill if financial ability is an issue.  Additionally, she is counseled and treated for possible exposure to certain STDs as well as emergency contraception while in the department.  If the physician or nurse does not provide emergency contraception secondary to religious beliefs, they must inform the patient of this and assist in making arrangements so that she may have all options available to her (remember the pills can be taken up to seventy-two hours after the sexual contact.)

I am providing this information in hopes that the availability of this emergency contraception does not deter a woman from seeking the medical care she needs after a sexual assault.  Coming to the emergency department will not only give her access to medications to prevent pregnancy and certain sexually transmitted diseases, but we will also help her find placement with a counselor or therapist.  Most departments have specialized nurses on call that are highly trained to help with the range of physical and emotional issues that surround sexual assault.  If this has happened to you or a loved one, please seek the appropriate medical care. Coming to the hospital does not mean you are obligated to press charges.

I hesitated in writing this article, because I am concerned that knowing she can prevent a pregnancy may deter women from the full spectrum of medical care that we can offer.  Please call 911 or go to an ER if you are ever assaulted. You will be grateful you made the right choice.

So while the “emergency pill” is definitely not a substitute for monogamous safe sex, it may be of use some day to you or those you love.  I recommend doing a quick search now so that should the need arise, you will already be informed and prepared.  Be well.

A board certified emergency physician, Jennifer Hanes, D.O., discovered that patients have greater success when they understand their bodies.  With that unique philosophy, she founded Empowered Medicine, PLLC, where knowledge is powerful medicine.  She empowers patients with her articles, motivational speeches and private consultations.  You can learn more at

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