Abell Salutes: Planned Parenthood’s Emergency Contraception Project

November 2003 / Salutes / Health and Human Services

For “calming nerves,” for “putting minds at ease.”

In the United States, approximately 3-million unwanted pregnancies occur each year and half end in abortion. Rates of unintended pregnancy are high for all women of childbearing age in the U.S., but are disproportionately higher in specific populations. As much as 78% of teen pregnancies are unintended, as are about 50% of pregnancies among women aged 20-34.

Unintended pregnancies are associated with increased risk for infant mortality fetal abnormalities, and low birth rates. These sad consequences result because too many women who are facing unplanned pregnancies often delay, or fail to access, prenatal care. Moreover, an estimated 73% of pregnancies among unmarried women are unintended, contributing to the large numbers of children being raised in single parent households.

Emergency contraception (EC) has been widely hailed by family planning providers as a safe and effective means of preventing unintended pregnancy and reducing abortions. When taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse, EC has been shown to reduce the risk of pregnancy by 75% to 89%, depending upon the particular product used. The vast majority of EC users use EC only as an emergency method of contraception, in cases of rape, or where the primary contraceptive method failed. One recent study showed that 70% of EC users were using a method of birth control prior to their need for EC, and 91% reported that they were satisfied with EC. Because EC is such an important tool for preventing unintended pregnancy, a number of groups, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, are supporting a petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to make EC available over-the-counter without a prescription. Similar efforts are underway in Maryland, to enact a state law allowing pharmacists to dispense EC without a prescription.

Unfortunately, many people still lack accurate information about EC’s availability, effectiveness, and proper use. In a poll conducted for Planned Parenthood of Maryland in July 2000, only 36% of respondents who had heard of EC knew that it was legal in the U.S., only 10% knew that EC had to be taken within 72 hours of intercourse, and only 26% believed that EC was “very effective“ at preventing pregnancy. Only 2% of
respondents had ever taken EC, and 4% had ever discussed it with a health professional. These poll results, which are consistent with national survey data, point to a tremendous need for public education regarding EC.

Recognizing EC’s potential to reduce unintended pregnancies and the need for public education about EC, Planned Parenthood of Maryland designed an Emergency Contraception project that includes outreach and education to consumers, as well as health care providers, a media campaign to promote EC, and a toll-free EC hotline to provide quick, easy, confidential access to information about EC. People who call the hot-line number (I877-99-GO-4-EC) can speak to trained staff members who provide education and counseling and take medical histories from callers who want an EC prescription. After this initial screening, callers can speak to Planned Parenthood on-call clinicians who can answer additional questions and, in appropriate cases, provide EC prescriptions by telephone.

“I am so grateful to talk with the young lady this morning, she calmed my nerves and assisted me in finding a pharmacy in the area that could fill the prescription. You do a great service to the community and for that I am so thankful.”

During the three years of the project, Planned Parenthood of Maryland has educated thousands of people throughout the state about the benefits of emergency contraception. Since the public education campaign was officially launched in September 2000:

  • the EC hotline has received over 20,000 calls,
  • Planned Parenthood on-call clinicians have received over 7,000 EC inquiries,
  • More than 70% of EC calls received by Planned Parenthood clinicians resulted in either an EC prescription being phoned in to a pharmacy, or a referral to a Planned Parenthood clinic where the patient could purchase EC at reduced price, and
  • Planned Parenthood was able to provide this service at a cost of $35 for each patient who received an EC prescription or clinical referral. By comparison, an unintended pregnancy costs an estimated $3,800.

In addition, the emergency contraception project has educated both doctors and pharmacists about EC, so that they will be better able to serve their patients and customers. By educating thousands of Marylanders about the benefits of EC, and providing quick, confidential access to this important family planning method, Planned Parenthood has prevented countless unplanned pregnancies, freeing women and couples to postpone childbearing until they are ready to undertake the responsibilities of parenting.

“Thank you so much for your help in getting my prescription for emergency contraception. It has really put my mind at ease. Someday I hope to be a volunteer for this or another family planning organization…”

Abell salutes Emily Thompson, Director of Quality Assurance and Special Projects of Planned Parenthood, and the staff of Planned Parenthood’s Emergency Contraception project, for calming nerves, and for putting minds at ease.