Here's What You Need to Know About Getting Emergency Contraception Right Now

Learn more about your options in light of potential shortages following the Roe v. Wade decision, according to doctors.

Emergency Contraception
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Last week's Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade — the landmark 1973 case that federally protected a person's right to have an abortion — has already resulted in abortion bans in seven states with more bans and restrictions expected to follow. Many are wondering what this means for continued access to emergency contraception, including the morning-after pill and copper IUDs (these differ from hormonal IUDs typically used for long-term birth control), both of which help prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex.

So, can you still get emergency contraception after Roe v. Wade was rescinded? The short answer is yes, you can still access emergency contraception right now, Tamika K. Cross, M.D., F.A.C.O.G., a Texas-based ob-gyn and a feminine health medical advisor for pH-D, tells Shape in an interview. "It is available," she says. But there are concerns about a potential shortage, as people may try to "stock up" on emergency contraceptives following the appeal of Roe v. Wade, explains Dr. Cross. Many people are "in fear since their reproductive rights are being managed by the government," she explains. (Related: Harmful DIY Abortion Advice Is Circulating Online, and It's Dangerously Easy to Find)

This worry about a shortage or future lack of access is especially profound for people who live in one of the 13 trigger states — areas in which the fall of Roe v. Wade meant automatic, or shortly thereafter, action on banning abortion at the state level — says Jessica Shepherd, M.D., ob-gyn and chief medical officer at Verywell Health, who is also based in Texas. But that doesn't mean emergency contraception options are not available in those states.

Emergency contraceptives are different than abortion medications, such as abortion pills, and are currently legal even in states that have already banned or plan to ban abortions, both Dr. Shepherd and Dr. Cross confirm. "However, due to increased confusion from Friday's ruling, there may be an uptick in people buying these medications and keeping them on hand out of fear of losing access to them down the road," says Dr. Shepherd.

"I completely understand the fear," says Dr. Cross. "The same thing happened in the pandemic with water and toilet paper. It's a natural reaction and to be expected," she says. In response, some pharmacies have begun limiting purchases of emergency contraception to avoid a possible shortage caused by stockpiling (more on this later).

Want to know more about emergency contraception options and how to access them no matter where you live? Keep reading for details, including whether or not experts recommend buying emergency contraception now to have on hand for the future and if a shortage is really on the horizon.

The Different Types of Emergency Contraception

When it comes to emergency contraception, you have two main options: Take a morning-after pill or get a copper IUD, explains Dr. Shepherd.

The most common method of emergency contraception is taking the morning-after pill, which refers to a variety of emergency contraceptive pills available from different brands, such as Plan B, Take Action, My Choice, and others. Pills from most brands contain levonorgestrel, a hormonal medication that prevents ovulation, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, the only type of morning-after pill that requires a prescription is called ella, which is made with ulipristal acetate, a selective progesterone receptor modulator that inhibits or delays ovulation.

If you're wondering exactly how these emergency contraception pills work, here's the short of it: Sperm can live in your body for up to five days. If you ovulate during that time, you may get pregnant. Emergency contraception pills prevent or delay ovulation (read: they stop your ovaries from releasing an egg), which is why it's important to take them ASAP. When taken within 72 to 120 hours (the window varies depending on which type) after having unprotected sex, emergency contraception pills are 89 percent effective, reports the Cleveland Clinic.

A copper IUD, on the other hand, is effective at preventing pregnancy even if you've already ovulated, because "sperm doesn't like the copper in the IUD," making it more difficult for the sperm to reach an egg, according to the Cleveland Clinic. An IUD is 99.9 percent effective at preventing pregnancy when a health care provider inserts it within five days (or 120 hours) after you've had unprotected sex. It's also worth noting that copper IUDs are just as effective at preventing pregnancy if you take it the day you have unprotected sex or on the fifth day after. Plus, a copper IUD from Paragard (the only brand available in the U.S.) can offer protection against future pregnancy for up to 12 years or until you decide to have it removed.

No matter the emergency contraception you choose, it's important to note that emergency contraception is not the abortion pill, says Dr. Shepherd. "Many think [emergency contraception] is similar to the abortion pill in that it causes a miscarriage or terminates a pregnancy but that is not the case," she clarifies. "Emergency contraceptive is used to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex or birth control failure." (Related: What to Know About Getting Abortion Pills In the Mail)

How to Get Emergency Contraception

Getting a copper IUD will require a visit to a health care provider. You can call your doctor, a family planning clinic, or Planned Parenthood if you want one, but you'll need to do so quickly in order to ensure you can get an appointment within 120 hours of having unprotected sex. However, most morning-after pills are available over the counter, without a prescription at pharmacies, drugstores, and grocery stores. While you'll need a prescription for ella, specifically, you don't necessarily need to visit a health care provider in person to get it.

Some online pharmacies, including Nurx, provide ella and generic emergency contraception pills after a virtual medical consultation. The bonus of using online service Nurx is that a patient who needs prescription-only ella can note on their order whether or not it is urgent (meaning that unprotected sex has already occurred), or "if they're getting it to have on hand for the future," says Varsha Rao, head of Nurx at Thirty Madison. Stix (which manufactures Restart, a levonorgestrel pill comparable to Plan B), Wisp, and Mark Cuban's Cost Plus Drug Company, are other online options for ordering emergency contraception pills.

Should You Buy Emergency Contraception Now Just In Case?

Unsurprisingly, after the draft opinion of the Supreme Court's ruling on Roe v. Wade was leaked in May 2022, Nurx saw a 300 percent increase in requests for emergency contraception to have "on hand" for future use, and that number has continued to increase since the Supreme Court officially overturned Roe v. Wade, says Rao. (FYI, most brands of emergency contraception have a shelf life of a few years, so you can buy them before you need them, but you'll want to double-check the expiration date in the event you need to take them.)

While you might be tempted to stock up on the morning-after pill now just in case you might need it down the line, experts agree it's important to not go overboard. Less than a week after Roe v. Wade was overturned, CVS, Rite Aid, and Amazon began to limit the number of emergency contraception pills someone can buy in order to avoid a shortage caused by stockpiling. Nurx's initial uptick in sales led to the company limiting purchases to two per person, but it is now allowing five per person, because it has "plenty of supply" and wants people to be able to order more if needed, adds Rao.

"It may be tempting to hoard mass amounts of Plan B, but because they expire, stockpiling isn't worth it," says Dr. Shepherd. "This can also lead to a shortage for others that need it. As of now, there is no concern that Plan B will no longer be available at some point, so it's best to purchase only as needed."

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