BIRTH CONTROL OPTIONS
September 2, 1998
The Food and Drug Administration approved "morning after" birth control pills for public sale today. Tests showed that they will prevent pregnancy 75 percent of the time if taken within 72 hours after sexual intercourse. Rod Minott of KCTS-Seattle reports, then participate in an online forum on emergency birth control.
STEPHANIE ABBOT, Pharmacist: You can read through here and fill out this information.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
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ROD MINOTT: Stephanie Abbot is a Seattle pharmacist who's had permission to dispense morning-after pills in a pilot project. Before prescribing them, she counsels patients and gets their consent.
STEPHANIE ABBOT: First, we need to determine if you're eligible for this service, so has it been within 72 hours since the unprotected intercourse occurred?
ROD MINOTT: Today the Food & Drug Administration approved the marketing and sale of emergency contraceptive pills. To be effective, emergency birth control pills must be taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse. It can take six to nine days for a fertilized egg to implant in a woman's uterus. The emergency contraception consists of certain combinations of ordinary birth control pills. It works by inhibiting or delaying fertilization and ovulation. Medical experts say the dose is 75 percent effective. And they claim it will not harm or terminate a pregnancy that's already established.
STEPHANIE ABBOT: The primary modes of action that it works by are not any different than the birth control pills that women take every day. It just—basically what it's doing is it's—you're taking a higher dose, so you take two pills, and then a 12-hour break and then two pills again, so you take four pills in one day. And what that's doing is it's bringing the levels up high enough to inhibit or delay ovulation.
ROD MINOTT: So far, Abbot has helped a dozen women.
STEPHANIE ABBOT: In a lot of cases it is a contraception failure, and, you know, the women are anywhere from, you know, teenagers to 45 has been the oldest woman that we've had in here.
Known for two decades, but only recently approved.
ROD MINOTT: The Food & Drug Administration announced that certain combinations of birth control pills were safe and effective for use as emergency contraception. So-called "morning-after pills" have been common knowledge among medical experts for at least two decades. But many women in the United States remained unaware and misinformed about their use.
JANE HUTCHINGS, Emergency Contraception Pilot Project: I think probably one of the reasons is that there has not been a dedicated product; there has not been a set of pills packaged and labeled as emergency contraception, so it really was off-label prescribing of oral contraceptives. But it really took the FDA, I think, who a year ago on February 25th, put a notice in the Federal Register encouraging the use of emergency contraception to reduce unintended pregnancy that further stimulated awareness of this.
Increasing public awareness.
ROD MINOTT: In fact, the FDA's move was intended to encourage drug companies to start specifically marketing emergency contraceptive pills, but so far, only one drug company has reportedly sought FDA approval to do that. TV ads like this airing in the Seattle area are helping to raise awareness of emergency contraception among both men and women.
MALE IN AD: Oh-oh.
AD SPOKESPERSON: Sometimes even the best protection can fail. That's when you need emergency contraception. Call 1-888-NOT-2-LATE, or ask your health care provider for information.
FEMALE IN AD: Tell me you just didn't say oh-oh.
ROD MINOTT: A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found awareness of emergency contraceptive pills remains low. 41 percent of men and women said they'd never heard of it. 90 percent of doctors said they do not talk to their patients about it during routine contraceptive counseling. As a result, only 1 percent of women report ever having used it. Family planning experts like Jane Hutchings say emergency contraception would also reduce abortions.
JANE HUTCHINGS: Well, in 1994, there were 2.65 million unintended pregnancies, and that was about 49 percent of all pregnancies. And of those unintended pregnancies, 54 percent ended in abortion. So there is a high level of unintended pregnancy.
ROD MINOTT: Maxine Hayes of the Washington State Health Department calls unintended pregnancies a public health problem.
MAXINE HAYES, Washington State Health Department: The data reveals that those mothers who have unintended pregnancy for one are more than likely not to access prenatal care early in their pregnancies and we know that when that happens, we fail to have the opportunities to change certain types of behaviors, nutrition, smoking, alcohol, exposures to the fetus that are harmful. We miss that opportunity.
Emergency contraception: equivalent to abortion?
ROD MINOTT: But pro-life groups say the emergency contraceptive method is equivalent to abortion. Camille DeBlasi heads Human Life of Washington State.
CAMILLE DeBLASI, Human Life of Washington State: There is a unique human being newly formed the moment fertilization occurs. Scientifically, biologically, medically, philosophically, we can arrive at that conclusion and see that there is a child that's being denied implantation, and he dies. So whether or not you're going to consider the woman pregnant, or how you're defining pregnancy, there was a child there, it was a live one, and then possibly by using this pill has died.
ROD MINOTT: Many medical experts, like family physician John Leversee, dispute allegations that the morning-after pill causes abortion.
DR. JOHN LEVERSEE, Family Physician: It slows down the transport time of the egg in the fallopian tube, so that it may not meet up with a sperm at a place and a time where fertilization can take place. So we feel that it's a contraceptive, and that it's not interfering with a fertilized egg.
ROD MINOTT: Reproductive health experts also raise another issue. The emergency contraception pills are not RU-486, also known as the abortion pill.
STEPHANIE ABBOT: The difference between the RU-486 and the emergency contraception is first of all, RU-486 is capable of terminating a pregnancy. The emergency contraception is not. It is only effective prior to implantation of the fertilized egg, or—and in a lot of cases it's not even fertilized—it's only preventative, and if a woman were to take it and she was pregnant, there would be no harm and no termination.
ROD MINOTT: Antiabortion groups criticized today's FDA rulings, saying emergency birth control pills were unconscionable, but the New Jersey-based company that manufactures them said they'll be on the market later this month.