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Contraception Quagmire: Making Sense of the Options


Surgical abortion, by comparison, may fail when performed before the seventh week of pregnancy, they write. "In addition, medical abortion is safe and acceptable to women and it does not require anesthesia."

There's also emergency contraception, which can prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex with increased doses of certain hormones or by inserting a copper intrauterine device (IUD) within five to seven days after sex. The IUD is not a method of abortion because it acts by preventing the fertilized egg from implanting in the lining of the uterus, which is required for a successful pregnancy.

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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