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The FDA recently voted 17 to 15 to approve the morning-after pill for purchase by girls aged 15 and 16 without a prescription. A federal judge wants to remove the prescription requirement for girls even younger. Do these moves promote abortion?

Without commenting on the personal decisions that surround the use of the morning-after pill, here are answers to ten frequently asked questions about the pill itself.

1. Aren't all morning-after pills the same?

No, there are minor differences between between brands. Next Choice and Plan B contain 0.75 mg of the active ingredient, levonorgestrel. It is necessary to take one dose of the pill as soon as possible after intercourse and a second dose 12 hours later. Plan B One-Step, Next Choice One Dose, and My Way contain 1.50 mg of levonorgestrel and are taken in a single dose.

2. Can everyone take the morning-after pill safely?

No. There are some drug interactions. It is extremely important to let the pharmacist know about any medications you take, especially anything to do with blood thinners, antidepressants, psychiatric drugs, or seizure medications. The drug also interacts with St. John's wort. There are, however, other medications used for emergency contraception, such as ethinyl estradiol (Yuzpe). Ask your pharmacist, who may have to send you to your doctor.

3. Does sexual intercourse always result in pregnancy without contraception?

No. The egg is only viable for about 24 hours after it is released in the womb. The sperm has to be on its way to the fallopian tubes at the time of ovulation to reach the egg while it can still be fertilized. A woman is only fertile for about 1-2 days every month. However, knowing the exact time of ovulation is difficult, so women who don't use or don't have access to other contraception methods may use morning-after pills.

4. Is the morning-after pill always effective?

No. Morning-after pills only work about 90% of the time. Some women who otherwise were going to become pregnant get pregnant even though they take the pill to stop pregnancy. That doesn't mean that 90% of sexual intercourse, however, results in pregnancy, because most of the time, a woman is not pregnant. However, if her periods are irregular, she may not be able to compute the day she is most likely to be fertile.

5. Isn't the morning-after pill an abortion pill?

Not exactly. As mentioned earlier, the morning-after pill only works before pregnancy begins. If the egg has not yet been released from the ovary, it stops the release of the egg. If the egg has already been released, it does not keep the egg from being fertilized by a sperm, but it does keep the fertilized egg from being implanted in the womb.

6. Will the morning-after pill have any benefits for controlling acne, like birth control pills?

No. The morning-after pills that have been approved for over-the-counter use do not contain estrogen (although there are other emergency contraceptive pills that do.)

7. I'm a guy. Can I get a morning-after pill for my girlfriend?

If you are a teenaged guy, probably not. The pharmacist has to speak with your girlfriend about possible drug interactions, and any aspect of the transaction that indicates the girl has had sex under coercion or after deception is likely to result in a call to the police.

8. Does the morning-after pill treat AIDS?

No. Emergency contraceptives have no effect on the transmission of HIV or STD's.

9. I took a morning-after pill and now my period is late. Does this mean I am pregnant?

Not necessarily. The morning-after pill is made of the same hormone that the uterus secretes during the second half of the menstrual cycle. Menstruation may be late because the lining of the uterus is thicker than usual. However, it is unusual for the period to be more than 7 days late if lateness is due to the morning-after pill. Some users will also have spotting or bleeding before their next period.

10. What if I'm already pregnant when I take the morning-after pill?

Then the baby is safe. Morning-after pills don't work the same way as the older, true abortion pill RU-486. If levonorgestrel is taken after pregnancy has begun, it has no effect on the embryo.

And now for an answer to a question that isn't asked frequently. What should a woman do if she experiences severe abdominal pain after taking the morning-after pill? See a doctor immediately. Severe abdominal pain after taking this pill may be a sign of ectopic pregnancy, which is always fatal if untreated.

  • Bernard N, Elefant E, Carlier P, Tebacher M, Barjhoux CE, Bos-Thompson MA, Amar E, Descotes J, Vial T. Continuation of pregnancy after first-trimester exposure to mifepristone: an observational prospective study. BJOG. 2013 Apr. 120(5):568-74. doi: 10.1111/1471-0528.12147. Epub 2013 Jan 24.
  • McCarthy M. US approves "morning after" pill without prescription for women 15 years or older. BMJ. 2013 May 3. 346:f2909. doi: 10.1136/bmj.f2909. No abstract available.
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