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Contraception Quagmire: Making Sense of the Options

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Taken in two doses, emergency contraceptive pills are higher-than-usual doses of standard birth control pills. The first dose should be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, and the second dose, 12 hours later. There are two types of these pills that are marketed specifically for use as emergency contraception -- Preven and Plan B. Preven is a four-dose combination of the hormones estrogen and protestin, and Plan B consists of two doses of progestin only.

"These are contraceptives, not abortives," Hatcher says. They work by preventing ovulation -- the release of eggs from the ovaries -- or preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus, where it would develop into a viable pregnancy, he tells WebMD.

"In the next 50 years or so, I predict emergency contraceptives will become the standard contraceptive method," says Hatcher, professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "As opposed to taking oral contraceptives daily, women will take [emergency contraceptives] the day after intercourse."

According to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 42 million women of reproductive age are sexually active and do not want to become pregnant. In fact, nearly half of America's 6 million annual pregnancies are accidental. Unintended pregnancies result in 1.4 million abortions annually. However, widespread use of emergency contraception could prevent an estimated 1.7 million unintended pregnancies and 800,000 abortions each year.

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