Young women who have an advance provision of emergency contraception are more
likely to use it when they need it, but its availability does not appear to
increase risky sexual behavior, according to a new study by University of
California, San Francisco researchers.
Emergency contraception, also known as oral post-coital contraception and often
called the morning-after pill, prevents pregnancy after unprotected
intercourse. The treatment regimen consists of a series of elevated doses of
oral contraceptive pills (levonorgestrel) taken within 72 hours of intercourse.
The UCSF study followed 213 young women between the ages of 16 and 24 who were
considered at very high-risk for unintended pregnancy and who were patients at
a publicly funded family planning clinic in the Mission District of San
Study participants were assigned to one of two groups: those receiving
educational information about emergency contraception along with advance
provision of a single treatment dose and those receiving only information.
Researchers compared behavior patterns in the two groups over a four-month
This type of data had not been collected previously in the U.S. or in such a
high-risk population, according to lead investigator Tina Raine, MD, MPH, an
assistant professor in the UCSF Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and
Reproductive Sciences who treats patients at San Francisco General Hospital
Medical Center and the New Generation Health Center, a clinic affiliated with
UCSF and SFGHMC.
Study findings are reported in last month’s issue of the journal Obstetrics and
Gynecology. Senior study investigator is Philip Darney, MD, MSc, UCSF
professor and chief of the Department of Ob/Gyn at SFGHMC.
The study found that women who had emergency contraception on-hand were three
times more likely to use it than women who only had received information about
it, and they did not have more unprotected sex or use condoms less.
Women in the advance provision group were more likely to report using a less
effective method of birth control-such as condoms-instead of oral
contraceptives, which are more effective. Twenty-eight percent of women in the
advance provision group reported using less effective methods at the end of the
study compared to the time of enrollment, versus 17 percent in the
“The implications of this finding are unclear since consistency of condom and
contraceptive use improved overall in both study groups from enrollment to the
end of the study. For example, if a woman uses oral contraceptives
inconsistently and switches to condoms but uses them more consistently or with
emergency contraception as a back-up method, this may have a positive impact on
unintended pregnancy rates. Future studies need to be done to determine the
impact of increased emergency contraceptive use on STDs and unintended
pregnancy rates,” Raine said.
The key clinical implications from the study concern the role of the provider,
according to Raine. “Providers need to present information about emergency
contraception within the context of education about other forms of
contraception, and to give their clients advance provision so they will have
this important method of contraception in hand when needed,” she said. “Many of
the potential barriers to using emergency contraception are removed when an
individual has it at home in advance.”
The researchers noted that these barriers range from awareness that an
emergency contraceptive method exists to specific knowledge about how and where
to obtain it and the correct time of its administration.
While most women ages 18-44 (66 percent) report that they have heard of
emergency contraception, only 1-2 percent report having used it, according to
the research team. Most health care providers consider it safe and effective,
yet few routinely discuss it with patients or prescribe it, they said.
Study co-investigators were Cynthia Harper, PhD, and Kathleen Leon, of the UCSF
Department of Ob/Gyn and Reproductive Sciences.
The study was supported in part by grants from the Compton Foundation, of Menlo
Park, Calif., and the Fred Gellert Family Foundation, of San Francisco.