Abortion Pill Myth: How The Morning After Pill Really Works
What was your sex education like?
Was it at school, with teenagers flicking condoms across the room and rolling around with laughter at the school nurse’s mention of the word ‘vagina’?
Did mum sit you down to have a chat about ‘the birds and the bees’ while you avoided eye contact at all costs?
Do you even remember receiving any form of sex education at all?
You’re not alone: Sex and Relationships Education is still not compulsory in UK schools, though the government aim to make it part of the curriculum by 2020.
The current guidelines for Sex Education hasn’t been updated since 2000 (that is 7 years before the invention of the iPhone, by the way: times have changed).
Sex Ed in schools also tends to only cover a few bases. The line is always the same: if you don’t want to get pregnant: use a condom, go on the pill or, best of all, don’t have sex before marriage (shoutout to my Catholic schooled homegirls).
It’s not bad advice, but it is slightly unrealistic. We all know that condoms can split, or be forgotten altogether, it’s all too easy to miss a pill or two – and don’t even get us started on the joys of abstinence.
So if you ‘screw up’ and have unprotected sex, what should you do?
Well, they don’t teach that bit at school. In a Family Planning Association (FPA) survey of over 2,000 women, only 17% of women had learned about emergency contraception as part of their sex education. That means 4 out of 5 women have never been taught how emergency contraception works.
We need to revisit some of these lessons learned at school. Emergency contraception is an important part of being a confident and responsible sexually active person, as well as understanding how your body works. We spoke to Deborah Evans, a pharmacist with two decades of experience, to help us explain how the morning after pill actually works.
One of the most common misconceptions about the morning after pill is that it causes a ‘mini abortion’. In fact, in the same survey by the FPA, 50% of respondents either agreed with this statement, or weren’t sure.
Let us clear up the confusion: this is completely false.
“No it is not an abortion pill,” says Deborah, “an abortion pill works by terminating an already established pregnancy, whereas the morning after pill delays or prevents ovulation, so no egg is released and is not fertilsed with a sperm.”
How Does The Morning After Pill Work?
When you ovulate, an egg leaves your ovary and travels down the fallopian tube towards your womb. While the egg is on her way out from the ovary, she may bump into a sperm in the fallopian tube who has swam to meet and fuse with her (this is called fertilisation).
The fertilised egg then travels to the uterus, where it will implant itself in the uterine wall: this is the beginning of a pregnancy.
“The morning after pill works by delaying or inhibiting ovulation if it has not already happened that cycle,” says Deborah, “This means that by the time the egg is released, any sperm that might be waiting to fertilise it will be dead. Because it is difficult to predict ovulation or to know whether it has happened, it is recommended that you take the morning after pill wherever you are in your cycle if unprotected sex has happened.”
”The morning after pill is not 100% effective as there is a chance that you may have already ovulated when you have sex - if this is the case the emergency contraceptive pill will not be able to prevent pregnancy - but if you have not already ovulated then using the morning after pill can help protect you from unplanned pregnancy,” she continues.
”There are two different hormonal contraceptive ingredients types: levonorgestrel and ulipristal acetate. Ulipristal acetate is recommended by the Faculty of Reproductive and Sexual health as being more effective than levonorgestrel,” Deborah adds.
Will The Morning After Pill Always Work?
No emergency contraceptive pill is 100% effective. Sperm can survive in the female body for up to five days, and if you ovulate before you take the morning after pill then fertilisation might take place.
This is why it is advised that you take the morning after pill as soon as possible after sex, to minimise the chance of ovulating and giving the emergency contraception the best chance at success.
Will the morning after pill protect me from further incidents of unprotected sex?
“The morning after pill won’t protect against future incidents of unprotected sex because its effects, i.e. delaying ovulation or preventing ovulation, are short-lived and ovulation is still likely to occur later in the cycle,” says Deborah, “If you want to have sex after using the morning after pill, use a condom even if you are taking a regular contraceptive pill until your next period.
You should use a barrier method of contraception (like a condom) until your next period comes, even if you're taking the regular contraceptive pill. Find out more here.
What’s the best way to break the taboo around the morning after pill? Talk about it. Share your my morning after story and help us end the stigma.
ellaOne® 30mg film-coated tablet contains ulipristal acetate and is indicated for emergency contraception within 120 hours (5 days) of unprotected sex or contraceptive failure. Always read the label.
Words: Miranda Slade