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The Facts About Emergency Contraceptive Pills

April 4, 2014

The rules governing access to emergency contraceptive pills have been a moving target these last few years, so now might be a good time to review the facts. Unplanned pregnancies among Navy and Marine Corps enlisted women are, unfortunately, too common. Emergency contraceptive pills may be helpful in some circumstances.

  • Emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs) can be taken by a woman after sex to reduce the chance that a pregnancy may occur. 
  • The use of ECPs can make it much less likely that a woman will get pregnant. But ECPs are not as effective as birth control that is used before or during sex. Women should not use ECPs as her only protection against pregnancy, because there are much more effective birth control options available to her.
  • The mechanism of action of emergency contraceptive pills is not fully understood. They may work by disrupting ovulation, fertilization, or implantation. The best available scientific evidence indicates that emergency contraceptive pills prevent pregnancy by mechanisms that do not involve interference with post-fertilization events.
  • ECPs do not protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like Chlamydia or HIV. People who are concerned about STIs should use a condom along with their chosen form of birth control.
  • ECPs are sometimes called the "morning after pill," but can be taken up to 5 days after the sexual encounter. ECPs are more effective the sooner they are taken.
  • ECPs will not cause an abortion. ECPs are not the same as the abortion pill. ECPs don't have any effect if the user is already pregnant. ECPs will not harm an existing pregnancy.
  • ECPs consist of a synthetic progestin (a hormone) called Levonorgestrel (pronounced LEE-və-nr-JES-trəl), and may be purchased under the brand names Plan B One-Step, Next Choice One Dose, Next Choice, and Levonorgestrel Tablets. ECPs prevent pregnancy primarily, or perhaps exclusively, by delaying or inhibiting ovulation. There is no evidence to suggest that any of these FDA-approved ECPs work after an egg is fertilized.
  • Plan B One-Step (one pill) is available for purchase to women and men without a prescription and without any age restrictions and may be found in some grocery and drug stores in the family planning-products aisle, although some stores still keep them behind the pharmacy counter.
  • Other one-pill ECPs (My Way and Next Choice One Dose) may soon be available on the store shelf for consumers aged 17 and older, but this change has not yet taken effect.
  • Two-pill ECPs (Levonorgestrel Tablets) are available only behind the pharmacy counter without prescription for women aged 17 and older. Women aged 16 and younger needs a prescription to get the two-pill ECPs.
  • Plan B One-Step is available to DoD health care beneficiaries, without age-restrictions, in every DoD medical facility. Ask at the pharmacy window or the emergency room. Plan B One-Step is available on some Navy ships. Click here to view DoD policy on Plan B.  
  • All Navy ships stock birth control pills which may be used for emergency contraception.

Please help our people understand the facts about ECPs, so they can make informed decisions. Ready-to-use educational information about family planning and contraception for Sailors and Marines is available from the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center's Health Promotion and Wellness Department.