The Emergency Contraception Debate

Though emergency contraception is not a new idea to society, it is still igniting many debates just as it did when it was first introduced to the United States. The controversy stems from people's beliefs about whether or not Plan B One-Step (the main brand of emergency contraception), Plan B One-Step's generic alternatives (Next Choice One Dose, My WayTake Action, and AfterPill) or Next Choice (the generic equivalent of Plan B) terminates a pregnancy.

Emergency Contraception

Dawn Stacey

Emergency contraception continues to be a highly emotional and controversial issue -- both for advocates who believe emergency contraception will lower the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions, and for opponents who believe that using emergency contraception amounts to an abortion. The controversy fueling this debate centers around one of the ways that emergency contraception is thought to work. Because of inconsistencies in what the research says and what FDA labels on these products say, people mistakenly believe that emergency contraceptives prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg. This mechanism of action is included on Plan B's product labels, but research has demonstrated that this emergency contraceptive has no impact on implantation.

Confusion with the Abortion Pill

Emergency contraception is often confused as being the same thing as the abortion pill, RU486. This is not the case, and these two medications serve two very different purposes.

Emergency Contraception Background:

Emergency contraception originated in the 1960s as treatment for rape victims to prevent unintended pregnancy. Doctors would prescribe a high dose of regular birth control pills after a rape.

Although emergency contraception has been available by prescription since 1999, this contraceptive received a lot of attention in 2005 when Commissioner Lester M. Crawford of the FDA passed the Plan B action -- which announced that "until unresolved regulatory and policy issues" could be reviewed, Plan B would not be available over the counter and would remain a prescription drug. Because of this action, the Assistant FDA Commissioner for Women's Health and Director of the Office of Women's Health (at the time), Susan Wood, resigned in protest.

On August 24, 2006, the FDA announced that Plan B would become available without a prescription for women ages 18 and older, but those younger than 18 would still need a prescription to obtain Plan B.

Then, on April 22, 2009, the FDA announced that Plan B could be purchased by 17-year-olds without a prescription. These fierce debate over who can buy this product caused emergency contraception to find its way back into the spotlight.

What Emergency Contraception Really Is:

Emergency contraception is used to prevent pregnancy. No matter when it is used, emergency contraception will not cause an abortion. The medical community considers a pregnancy to be established only after implantation of a fertilized egg has occurred.

The Fuel Behind the Emergency Contraception Debate

Pro-life advocates and politicians have been pushing to redefine pregnancy as beginning at fertilization. People behind this push are falsely trying to convince women that they are not receiving all accurate facts about emergency contraception. These groups and law makers incorrectly argue that Plan B One-Step (and similar levonorgestrel-based morning-after pills) will cause a pregnancy to end.

This viewpoint stems from these organizations’ belief that life begins with the fertilization of an egg. Because of their beliefs, pro-life advocates are trying to convince women that Plan B One-Step causes abortions by creating a hostile environment within the uterus and prevents implantation of an egg -- with the end result being the termination of a pregnancy.

Where the Debate Stands:

Though pro-life advocates claim emergency contraception causes an abortion by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus, the government and the medical community agree that Plan B One-Step is considered an emergency contraceptive -- this is because the purpose for using it is to prevent a pregnancy from occurring in the first place. According to the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that advances sexual and reproductive health, “definitions that seek to establish fertilization as the beginning of pregnancy go against the long-standing view of the medical profession and decades of federal policy.”

So, to get to the bottom of the emergency contraception debate, you must look at the medical and legal facts. Scientifically, something is considered an abortifacient if it causes a pregnancy to end prematurely. Medical and scientific authorities consider a pregnancy to be established only once the implantation of a fertilized egg has occurred. Federal policy, in accordance with medical experts, defines medication that acts before implantation as preventions to pregnancy and not methods that terminate pregnancy. 

The beliefs of people who are against the use of emergency contraception are purely just opinion and theory. Their belief that Plan B One-Step causes abortions is just that, a belief -- there is no medical data to support this. It is important that people are educated with factual information. Science and research clearly shows that emergency contraception is not abortion and will not cause an abortion. It's completely impossible to terminate a pregnancy that does not exist.

Plan B One-Step is a safe and effective method for women to PREVENT a possible pregnancy after engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse or experiencing contraceptive failure. Over the years, it  has proven to be drastically reduce the number or unwanted pregnancies as well as the number of abortions that would have taken place if these pregnancies were not prevented through the its use.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA's Decision Regarding Plan B: Questions and Answers.

  2. World Health Organization. Emergency contraception.

  3. Guttmacher Institute. The Implications of Defining When a Woman Is Pregnant.

By Dawn Stacey, PhD, LMHC
Dawn Stacey, PhD, LMHC, is a published author, college professor, and mental health consultant with over 15 years of counseling experience.