Natika Halil: End myths of emergency contraception

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Emergency contraception has been a hot topic since its inception more than 40 years ago. Frequently the subject of sensationalist reports, it is the only method that can be used to prevent pregnancy after contraceptive failure or unprotected sex, and has benefited millions of women around the world by preventing pregnancies they would not want.

We have chosen emergency contraception for our Sexual Health Week theme this year because of the endless myths and misconceptions we hear about how it works and what the options are. The phrase that will spring to mind for many people is “the morning-after pill”. It’s understandable this has slipped into everyday use – but in truth it is unhelpful and misleading, and we believe it helps propagate myths that could act as barriers to women getting the help they need.

For starters there are three different methods of emergency contraception, and only two of them are pills. Further, none of the methods have to be used within 24 hours, or by the “morning after” to be effective. In fact one of the pills (ellaOne) and the emergency IUD (also known as the coil) can be used up to five days, and the other pill Levonelle can be used up to three days after.

These are basic facts that – be it through lack of sex and relationships education or insufficient information from health professionals – unfortunately are not known by vast swathes of women, and indeed men, across the UK. We surveyed more than 2000 sexually active women and found some glaring gaps in their knowledge and understanding. In Scotland, 69 per cent of women aged 16-54 wrongly believed, or weren’t sure, that emergency contraception has to be used within 24 hours of unprotected sex to be effective. This was the highest of any region in the UK. Forty-two per cent wrongly thought that you have to have a prescription to get any method of emergency contraception, or weren’t sure – again the highest of any region in the UK, and 64 per cent thought emergency hormonal contraception – the two pills available – can make you infertile, or didn’t know.

Another myth is that emergency contraception is like having an abortion – in fact one prevents a pregnancy and one ends a pregnancy and the difference is very clear in medical guidance and law. Yet more than half of Scottish women in our survey (52 per cent) thought this was true, or weren’t sure. While we live in a world where there is no contraceptive method with 100 per cent efficacy, and mistakes do happen, we need emergency contraception. Not only that but women have a right to access the information, advice and treatment they need to maintain control over fertility.

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• Natika Halil is director of health and wellbeing at sexual health charity FPA