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Advocates of emergency contraception say easier access to the drugs could greatly reduce the number of unintended pregnancies — estimated at nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States — and have already significantly helped reduce the abortion rate.

Among that group are the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Family Practice and a host of women’s, pro-choice and privacy- rights groups.

Opponents of emergency contraception say it is abortion and that easy access to it could lead to sexual promiscuity. Among that group are right- to-life organizations, Christian conservatives and the Roman Catholic Church, which opposes all contraception.

Morning-after pills are not the same thing as the drug RU-486. That drug, not available in the United States or on overseas military bases, can end a pregnancy of up to five weeks, when an embryo is about the size of a grain of rice, by causing alterations in the uterine lining.

But some on the religious right say they believe a fertilized egg is a human life, due the same protections as a human being. For them, anything that interferes with the egg’s ability to implant is abortion.

Both Plan B and the older forms of emergency contraception use the same hormones as standard birth control pills and, experts say, work exactly the same way. They all are thought to suppress ovulation, prevent fertilization and inhibit implantation.

Emergency contraception is most effective if taken within 24 hours to 72 hours of unprotected intercourse. Still, they are less effective than the standard regimen of birth control pills, which are more than 99 percent effective in preventing pregnancy. That’s one reason why they are not recommended as a routine form of birth control.

However, the American College of Obstetrician and Gynecologists recommends that women get emergency contraception to keep on hand before they need it, in the case of regular contraception failure, unprotected sex or sexual assault.

Doctors have known since the 1960s that a stronger dose of birth control pills could help prevent pregnancy but it was not routinely prescribed and few women knew it was an option. In 1997, the Federal Drug Administration approved commonly used birth control pills as being safe and effective for use as emergency contraceptives.

Two years later, the FDA approved Plan B for doctors to prescribe as an emergency contraceptive. Since then, the specially packaged drug, consisting of two tablets to be taken 12 hours apart, has become the preferred method of emergency contraception.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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