Five Things to Know About the Morning-After Pill on Its 20th Anniversary

Medication portion of PREVEN Emergency Contraceptive Kit. Photo: Smithsonian Institution

In 1993, the New York Times Magazine posited that the morning-after pill might be “the best-kept contraceptive secret in America.” Even many doctors had no idea there was a fallback contraceptive that could be used shortly after unprotected sex or cases of rape.

In many ways, the morning-after pill had been right in front of U.S. doctors for decades. In terms of chemical composition, it was not much different from standard birth control, using the same main ingredients — synthetic hormones — in higher doses. Moreover, many of their colleagues in Europe and Asia had already been prescribing morning-after pills for years.


In 1998, years of research and advocacy led to the first FDA-approved morning-after pill.


Here, however, the secret was still largely intact. A 1994 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that two-thirds of American women had never heard of the morning-after pill or other forms of emergency contraception (EC). Less than 1 percent had ever used them.

There was an information shortfall in large part because there was no contraceptive that was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) specifically for emergency use. Some providers worked around that absence by using the chemically similar estrogen and progestin medications that were approved for regular birth control. By upping the dosage, they created a suitable morning-after pill on their own. But drug makers couldn’t label or market those birth-control pills for emergency, post-coital use, since they weren’t FDA-approved for that purpose. It also spelled problems for federally funded clinics. Federal dollars couldn’t pay for an off-label medication hack, a makeshift morning-after pill that wasn’t officially approved. Continue reading

Let’s Talk Contraception: Emergency Contraception

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that 1 in 9 American women — 11 percent — has used the “morning-after pill.” This means that in the United States, 5.8 million sexually active women between the ages of 15 and 44 have used emergency contraception, an increase in use of 4.2 percent from 2002. Most women say their reasons for using emergency contraception are because they engaged in unprotected sex or feared that their method of contraception failed.


The best way to prevent pregnancy is reliable birth control. But sometimes we need a back-up method.


It has also been reported that half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended. For that reason, the availability of a range of contraceptive options is very important. Emergency contraception is the last choice for a woman to decrease her chance of becoming pregnant after unprotected sex. There are several products available for emergency contraception in the United States. There are many options, and they include:

  • regular birth control pills in specific doses
  • PlanB One-step
  • Next Choice
  • ella
  • copper IUD or intrauterine device (Paragard)

The Yuzpe regimen, which used ordinary birth control pills in specific combinations, was named after a Canadian physician who developed the method in the 1970s. Several brands of birth control pills are approved for this use to prevent pregnancy. This method uses the combined estrogen and progesterone hormones in your regular birth control pills in certain prescribed combinations.

Research showed the progesterone component of contraceptive pills was most effective at preventing pregnancy, so Plan B was developed as a two-pill regimen of levonorgestrel (a type of progesterone). When Plan B was first released, it consisted of one pill taken as soon as possible and another taken 12 hours later. Plan B One-Step, the newest version of Plan B, now has the same dosage of levonorgestrel in just one pill. It should be taken as soon as possible after unprotected sex. This one-dose regimen has been shown to be more effective with fewer side effects. Continue reading