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Why is emergency contraception interesting to think with?

[UPDATE: Formatting issues preventing this article from displaying properly have been fixed! – Ed.]

I promised that the next post would be about emergency contraception in Egypt, but I couldn’t resist first writing about EC more generally and describing debates about EC in the U.S.

From rape treatment to mainstream contraception

For more than four decades, medical researchers have known that there are methods you can use after sex to prevent – not terminate – pregnancy. Emergency contraception (EC) was first researched in the 1960s by physician-researchers trying to find a way to prevent pregnancies in survivors of sexual assault. They experimented in giving rape survivors high doses of regular oral contraceptive pills (OCPs). Later it was established that inserting a copper-bearing IUD after sex was even more effective at reducing pregnancy risk.

Remember that this was during the pre-Roe v. Wade era so there were political reasons for looking for a way of preventing pregnancy, rather than expecting to be able to resort to abortion, for women who got pregnant after sexual assault. But of course there are also enduring religious and public health reasons for wanting to find ways to prevent pregnancy, rather than end it with abortion.

Increasingly, knowledge about this contraceptive technique filtered out to a wider public and in the 1970s through the 1990s, there was an underground movement of women and doctors spreading the word about do-it-yourself emergency contraception. You just take several pills from a regular pack of birth control pills within 5 days after sex.

(There’s a website run by Princeton University’s Office of Population Research that tells you exactly how many pills to take depending on what brand of Pill you’ve got, and as far as I can tell, this website was actually the first health information website on the Internet.)

Even though this form of contraception has been known for decades, it’s only in the past ten years or so that emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs) have become more widely known and marketed as a contraceptive option for all women, not just rape survivors. There’s been a global movement to introduce “dedicated products” worldwide and to lobby for them to be made available without prescription. (A “dedicated product” is when emergency contraceptive pills are packaged and marketed specifically for that purpose. Activists have long argued that this is an important improvement on the DIY culture of cutting up packets of pills because it increases awareness of EC and lends the method popular legitimacy.)

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