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Talking about EC

Dispelling misinformation about EC with your patients.

by Robin Watkins, CNM, WHNP-BC

published 02/15/23

Confusion about the use and availability of emergency contraception (EC) remains widespread. Polling from KFF Health this month found that nearly a third of people weren’t sure if EC was even legal in their state (spoiler alert—EC is legal everywhere in the US) and additional research has shown that patients (and providers) have confusion about the differences between EC, which is used to prevent pregnancy, and medication abortion, which is used to end a pregnancy. Providers are key to helping people understand EC and how they can get and use it when they need it. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about EC.

What is emergency contraception?

Answer: EC is birth control that you use after sex to prevent a pregnancy before it ever starts. There are two types of EC pills and two types of IUDs that can be used as EC.

For more about types of EC and how they work, check out this quick doodle guide featuring Dr. Colleen Denny to learn more.

Is EC the same thing as medication abortion?

Answer: Nope! EC pills and using an IUD as EC will only prevent a pregnancy from starting. EC pills work by delaying ovulation, so there is no egg there to fertilize and pregnancy is avoided. And taking EC pills if you are already pregnant won’t impact an ongoing pregnancy.

We’ve got you covered for answers to the most frequently asked questions about the difference between medication abortion and EC pills.

How do you get EC?

Answer: It depends on the method of EC that you are using. To get an IUD for EC you’ll need to see a provider who is trained to place IUDs. To get prescription EC pills you’ll need to talk to a health care provider before you can get it, but that could be in-person or online and you can get it delivered to your door. Over-the-counter EC pills are available nationwide without a prescription for people of all ages and genders—that means they are legal everywhere.

For more information about placing an IUD after unprotected or under-protected sex, check out this real-life scenario in our Clinical Minute: Placing an IUD after unprotected sex.

Which method of EC should I use?

Answer: There is no right or best method of EC for everyone. It’s normal for you to consider a variety of factors when selecting an EC method including what’s available when you need EC, if you want an IUD, how important it is to you to prevent pregnancy right now, how much you weigh, and how long it’s been since you’ve had sex because EC pills, especially OTC EC pills, are less effective the longer it’s been since you’ve had sex.

Unfortunately, timely access to the EC method of choice doesn’t reflect people’s experiences accessing EC pills in their community. Research from the American Society of Emergency Contraception (ASEC) found that barriers remain, including limiting stocking and availability of EC, age restrictions, and high cost. Learn more about how you can help people get the EC pills they need.

Robin Watkins is the Director of Clinical Affairs and Medical Education at the Society of Family Planning. Robin is a midwife and women’s health nurse practitioner focused on expanding provider capacity to offer just, equitable, resonant, and high-quality sexual and reproductive health care. Robin provides clinical care in the Washington, DC area. When she is not talking sex or placing IUDs, you can find her riding her bike on the streets of DC or eating ice cream for dinner.
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