Can I use birth control pills as EC? Can I get an Ella prescription early? and other things you always wanted to know about emergency contraception

It was 2004 and a Women’s March had just concluded. Yet there I remained, standing on a crowded corner in Washington, D.C., my prescription pad firmly in hand. My goal? To write as many scripts for emergency contraception as I could get out before my hand cramped – up to 12 refills for  some of the women and teens coming up to me on the street.32321209178_a3bf8c2012_z-1

It’s now 15 years later and most EC is available easily to people of all ages, without a person needing to access a doctors office (or worse, a doctor on the street corner) in order to get the medication. That’s a huge and essential development, too. With abortion bans passing in states throughout the U.S. and the President determined to cater to anti-abortion activists in order to win another term in the White House, there may be no act more important to a person’s future than to be sure they are able to prevent unintended pregnancies.

But with blatant misinformation being spread purposefully by opponents of reproductive rights and health, emergency contraception is still surrounded in a cloak of mystery that continues to make it difficult to access and use effectively. Here are a few lingering questions that people still ask about what is now a process that’s been around for more than two decades in a variety of forms.

Is emergency contraception an abortifacient? 

Obviously there are entire political campaigns, court cases and “religious liberty” virtue signaling around the obsession that emergency contraception could cause a fertilized egg not to implant. This belief has led a small (but extraordinarily noisy and disproportionately politically connected) minority of people to argue that any form of emergency contraception is in actuality a potential abortion. The fact is that almost all medical professionals believe pregnancy does not begin until an egg implants, making the argument pointless. But even if that were not the case and a fertilized egg was the beginning of a pregnancy, emergency contraceptives like Plan B or Ella do not alter the lining of the uterus – they only prevent ovulation for a few days in order to give live sperm enough time to die off before an egg is released. If Plan B did alter the lining fewer people would still get pregnant despite taking the medicine – currently Plan B and its generic counterparts have a success rate of only about 90 percent when taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, and that rate drops quickly as you add days on (Ella is more effective, working for up to a week, but requires a prescription). Even IUDs, which antis claim prevent implantation, aren’t actually abortifacient and are more likely to make a womb hostile to sperm than irritate a lining. They can be the most effective EC out there, but be sure you were interested in long acting birth control if you do get one – don’t just do it because you had unprotected sex once.

Can you use birth control pills as EC?

There are a lot of questions going around about whether or not a person can make their own EC out of an existing pack of hormonal birth control pills. The answer is yes – but with caveats. People often used pill packs to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex prior to EC being available over the counter, especially in the 1990’s and early 2000s when access to a health clinic for birth control pills could be the only way a person has a shot at preventing pregnancy once sex already occurred. Today EC is so much easier to access and the types available for purchase are more fine tuned especially for preventing ovulation, making them much preferable to the old method of navigating multiple pills from a pill pack. Unlike full birth control pills, Plan B and other emergency contraceptives are less likely to cause nausea since they don’t contain estrogen. It’s also just one pill, one dose, rather than needing to navigate the correct number of pills at the correct intervals in order to be protected after sex (usually doses need to be taken 12 hours apart to be effective). In other words, true emergency contraception is always going to be easier and gentler on your body. But there may be circumstances where you just can’t get to a place that has EC in time – maybe your store doesn’t stock it, or the clinic you’d go to is closed for the weekend, or you don’t have the $40 it might cost to buy OTC without going through a doctor. In those cases, yes, if you have pills available that is far better than putting yourself at risk for an unwanted pregnancy. If you find yourself in that situation consider reaching out to friends that you know are on the pill who may have extra packs in their possession (many prescription programs send them months or even a year at a time now), and use this resource to figure out how to do the right dosage. Also, be aware that like Plan B, birth control pills are less likely to be effective as EC if a person has a higher BMI (Body Mass Index).

Speaking of higher BMI, should I take twice as much Plan B if I’m overweight?

NO! Don’t do it! Plan B does lose its efficacy if a person has a BMI of 26 or more, but taking more of the medicine is not going to make it more effective. If a person has unprotected sex and wants to try to prevent pregnancy, then just one dose of Plan B should be taken – not multiple – and you should try to take it as quickly as possible in order to have a better chance at preventing ovulation. There is at this time no indication that a double dose will do anything more than just give you more hormones that you don’t really need, and won’t change the likelihood of getting pregnant at all. If at all possible, to be truly safe try to use Ella instead, or look at getting an IUD placed as quickly as possible if long acting reversible contraception was already a path you wanted to pursue.

Can you “stock up” on EC if you want Ella?

Everyone recommends that a person capable of getting pregnant should have at least one dose of EC on hand for emergencies. Unfortunately Ella, considered the most effective due to its longer window of usability and success with physically larger patients, is sadly prescription only. But just because you need a prescription doesn’t mean you can’t still get a dose (or more!) to have on hand. Ask your doctor to write you a prescription now so you can get it filled on your own timeline and have it ready in case you (or a friend, or a family member, or a partner) need it down the road. In fact, ask for multiple doses – some doctors can write refills for anywhere from six to even 12 doses.

Also, if you are currently getting your birth control pills via mail order, check in to see if your clinic or doctor can add an EC dose into the delivery. While obviously it is less likely you’ll need EC when you are already on birth control, accidents do happen and pills do get lost or forgotten. Plus, it’s always good to have one on hand to share.

Newest Op-Ed Up at AZ Central

For too long, far-right zealot and Center for Arizona Policy president Cathi Herrod has been allowed to publicize her lies unchallenged – the first step to implementing medically unnecessary and harmful legislation that impacts reproductive rights in the state of Arizona and beyond. Now, we are no longer willing to let those lies go unaddressed. Together with award winning filmmaker Civia Tamarkin, we’ve rebutted her latest slew of falsehoods and misconceptions over at AZ Central. A snippet is below, please click here to read the entire piece.

Abortion only is made dangerous by religious beliefs masquerading as public health policy and by the meddling of legislatures whose lack of medical knowledge and biases tie the hands of medical professionals and force patients into later termination and medically unnecessary interventions.

The real danger to women’s health is created by the falsehoods and political pressure of lobbyists like Cathi Herrod.

Lies cannot go unanswered, and we will be sure that the people always learn the truth. Lives depend on it.

Total Abortion Bans are a Nightmare and We Need to Wake Up

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With the recent passage of Alabama’s total abortion ban – a new law that from the moment of fertilization relegates a pregnant person into a secondary concern behind that of a developing zygote – many people across the United States feel like they have woken up to a fantasy world. It’s not hard to understand, why, either. For decades now abortion opponents have subtly, restriction by restriction, stripped away at a person’s right to decide when they want to give birth, often claiming they are doing it as a “favor” to the person who doesn’t want to be pregnant, protecting them from fictitious medical or emotional damage that they insist could result from abortion.

But sadly this isn’t a fantasy – it’s a reality. Given unlimited power in dozens of  states and in the White House, anti-abortion activists have stopped playing pretend when it comes to ending reproductive rights. They want it to happen immediately and totally, and they don’t care who knows it, or how contemptuous their actions are to those who are able to get pregnant.

The truth is that when it comes to healthcare issues in general and pregnancy, fetal development and childbirth, it is the anti-abortion movement that is living in a fantasy world.  They are proposing medical procedures – like “re-implanting an ectopic pregnancy” – that have never, ever existed. They claim abortion is never medically necessary despite the fact that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists [ACOG] the leading healthcare organization for those who care for pregnant people, states clearly that, “Abortions are necessary in a number of circumstances to save the life of a woman or to preserve her health. Sadly, pregnancy is not a risk-free life event.” They are anti science, anti advancement and anti research and despite these facts are being allowed to create legislation that undermines a patient’s care.

And unfortunately, it is the mainstream medical profession that is allowing this movement to promote this pretend world where every fertilized egg is a tiny but perfectly formed replication of a glowing, chubby newborn, and that pregnancy is just a short, minor inconvenience that has no lasting physical effects, much less threatens a person’s life. So-called “pro-life” doctors willfully spread misinformation to confuse patients and undermine our work. Ambivalent medical professionals in my state of Arizona including maternal fetal medicine physicians ostracize those of us who openly perform elective abortions, abandoning us until they have their own patients who need care, then quietly refer them over because they aren’t trained to do the procedures themselves. Doctors in  my community continue to abandon abortion providers, allowing us to be vilified and demonized, then are shocked to see the passage of full abortion bans with no exceptions – even for looming health issues – bans that mean they, too, could be criminally penalized if they put their pregnant patients’ health needs ahead of the developing life of an embryo.

Pregnant people are more than wombs and incubators, yet these new bans showcase the right’s endgame of dehumanizing those who can give birth in favor of the possible birth of any implanted blastocyst. Physicians themselves who proclaim to be maternal fetal medicine advocates and specialists are actually only fetal doctors. Women with extremely abnormal pregnancies, fetuses with poor prognosis or their own health issues, are left own their own to get the medical care they need. The future is clearly about forced birth regardless of the health or mental well-being of the person who serves as the true patient – and not just abortion providers but all medical professionals will be expected to fall in line.

That future is a true nightmare, and if we don’t wake up and stop it now, we may never get a chance to again.

No, We Aren’t ‘Murderers’ – We Are Your Doctors

The far right is now on its second month of claiming that unless new laws are put into place, abortion providers will willfully and eagerly murder newborn infants while the patient silently and complicitly watches. The utter mistrust and suspicion that anti-choice politicians have towards medical professionals who offer legal abortion care (and, frankly, to the people who seek it out) is no longer shocking. What is surprising, however, is how much the public is falling for this mistaken concept that the doctor providing abortions is somehow a completely different entity from the doctor checking your paps, inserting your IUDs and yes, even delivering your baby into the world.

One of the hardest parts of being an abortion provider is the isolation in our medical profession that is  thrust upon us by anti-choice factions. They’ve forced medical schools to outsource full-scale Ob/Gyn care that includes learning miscarriage management and abortions at all levels of gestation. They’ve made medical students opt in, rather than opt out, of learning these completely legal and necessary medical procedures, and travel off campus and further if they want to get enough training to be proficient. And they’ve removed elective abortions from hospitals and private family medical clinics and corralled them into abortion clinics and reproductive health clinics alone, as if they were an infectious disease that must be contained.

Providing an abortion is just one part of what an Ob/Gyn, or even many family doctors can and should be able to do, and an important part of the medical services spectrum that allows one doctor to see a patient through every level of that person’s medical needs at any given point in their life. Yet the right has siloed abortion into one “shameful” medical concept and annexed it from the full continuum of care, as if there are “abortion doctors” and “real doctors” rather than them being one and the same.

That same doctor that gives one pregnant person an ultrasound to see if she is early enough to use medication abortion for a termination is likely to be found a day later with another patient checking her dilation to see if she’s  in labor. Yet the right is adamant that the first one is a monster, and the second a trusted part of the medical team, despite the fact that each is the same person in a different setting.

No, we aren’t committing infanticide, or murder, or doing harm. We took oaths to protect our patients, and there are already laws to be certain that we uphold them. We are all  physicians and we are all governed by the same boards and bodies,  yet anti-choice activists have convinced you that we are different simply because of the clinic in which we provide our care.

Of course there are bad abortion providers out there, that is inescapable. There are also bad cardiologists, bad oncologists, bad surgeons and more. Yet in those specialties a rogue doctor is treated as an anomaly, and isn’t seen as tarnishing an entire profession. Yet because an abortion doctor’s specialty is relieving a patient of a pregnancy they do not want to continue, every rare instance of poor care or doctor violation is seen as the rule, not the exception.

Abortion providers, like all doctors, do what they need to do to best meet the needs of their patients. Just as you would trust a doctor to provide the best end of life care that a patient and their family requests, you can trust us as well to put the needs of the pregnant patient first and do what they want and is necessary as they deal with an unwanted pregnancy, or a pregnancy that is medically compromised.

As a doctor, I am no more likely to harm or dispose of a viable, full term fetus than any other doctor would be to murder an elderly patient simply because they are bedridden or too frail to walk. But just as most doctors will honor end of life decisions and work with a family to offer hospice when there is no hope for recovery, I too work with my own patients to make the best medical decisions for themselves and their families, too.

No one is murdering Grandma, and no one is committing infanticide, despite what anti-choice activists say. But those same activists who want to end abortion – not just later abortion, but all abortion at any point and for any reason – want to also take away your right to make end of life decisions, too. Today they are arguing to force resuscitation on fetuses on the very edge of viability against the wishes of a parent. Tomorrow, they will be focused on keeping bodies with no brain activity on life support against the wishes of the family, too. We already saw this in Texas when the state kept a brain-dead pregnant woman on life support to try to get her fetus to viability, despite her family asking them to stop. When you are legislating “life” as “conception to natural death” a family’s wishes could easily be against the law.

I am not a murder, or a monster. I am a doctor. I once delivered your babies and still do your paps, IUD’s, physical exams and STI checks, and yes, I terminate pregnancies, too. Trust me to do my  job and look out for your medical best interests at every point in your life.

After all, I trust you to make the best decisions for yourself, too.

A Week in Review: SOTU, Stacey Abrams and Reproductive Justice

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A guest post by Dr. Savita Ginde

We are in an era where stories, both fake and true, are coming out every day and presented with such confidence that it is difficult to separate truth from fact. Even when it feels as if reproductive health is under attack from every direction, we continue to witness some shining moments, like Stacey Abrams’ State of the Union rebuttal and the stay granted by the U.S. Supreme Court. But before we can celebrate these feats, it is necessary to understand why they were needed in the first place.

Last week, on Tuesday night, President Trump spoke to the country during his State of the Union. Most of his talking points were benign, even heartening at times, as he addressed our need for unity and a plan to rid the U.S. of HIV. However, during his speech, right after proposing a much-needed national paid family leave plan, he transitioned into an attack on a recently passed New York law and a similar Virginia bill that would remove some restrictions on second and third-term abortions, claiming that these pieces of legislation would “allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” Misstatements made by Virginia delegate Tran and Virginia’s Governor fueled this rhetoric even further, and facts have now been misconstrued rather than corrected. True Supporters of reproductive rights and justice do not promote or support infanticide. Period. 

To say that “a baby [is] ripped from the mother’s womb” is an utter misrepresentation that evokes negative emotions and shuts down true dialogue. This statement was quite frankly a disservice to the American people. After providing his statements and opinion about these laws, President Trump turned and made a very deliberate nod to VP Mike Pence. I interpreted this nod as President Trump showing his support of the deep religious convictions of Mr. Pence. I respect Mr. Pence’s belief; but not everyone has the same beliefs. I don’t want his religious beliefs placed on me, nor are his beliefs reflective of what population health data shows. We have bypassed our common ground of compassion and respect for each other and have devolved into using dehumanizing rhetoric.

In reality, the laws that Trump was referring to intend to protect patients’ health and remove the unnecessary barriers surrounding abortion care. Second and third-term abortions, such as the ones in question, rarely happen. Pregnancies terminated after 24 weeks are few and far between and occur when a mother’s life is in danger or the fetus is not viable. 

After the SOTU, Georgia’s Stacey Abrams gave a response centered around reproductive justice.  

Far too often, people are led to believe that “reproductive rights” are synonymous with “reproductive justice.” This is not the case. Whereas reproductive rights are centered around advocating on behalf of abortion rights, the reproductive justice framework uses an intersectional lens to dive much deeper into the topic, and includes access to both safe abortion, accurate sexual education, and reliable contraception as some of its foundational components. 

When Stacey Abrams mentioned reproductive justice, it became a reminder that we need to approach the quest for bodily autonomy by looking at the social, political, and economic inequalities that create barriers to accessing safe abortion, sexual education, and reliable contraception. It was also a call to action to support the individuals and groups that are already doing this work. If the highs and lows of last week indicate anything, it is how much we need to better understand, engage in and support the reproductive justice movement. 

The Real “Monsters” in the Debate Over Third Trimester Abortions are Those Opposing Them

Torres profile picA Guest Post by Dr. Leah Torres

It is every pregnant person’s nightmare: months into a very wanted pregnancy, a doctor comes in and says, “There is something we need to discuss.”

“Is there something wrong?” they think. “Is my baby ok? What is it?! For the love of all that is holy tell me!”

And the news comes: the baby will not survive after being born.

Not one person shouting about how vile and evil the new proposed third trimester abortion laws are has clearly ever taken care of a patient in need of that procedure. These patients are faced with one of the most tragic and heart-wrenching decisions of their lives, one where their entire future has changed in a moment’s notice. No matter what these “experts” say – and remember these are mostly anti-choice activists who have never in their lives attended medical school – the patients needing them are not monsters. No, the monsters are those who are opposed to pregnant people doing what is best for themselves and for their families.

Of course, this is a rare occurrence, but it does happen. What those of us who provide present-day, evidence-based abortion care can tell you is that the patient who comes in perfectly healthy and with a healthy fetus doesn’t ask for an abortion after viability. If they do, it is because they did not know how far along they were. When that does happen, and a patient learns they are too late to obtain a legal abortion, the doctor tells the patient an abortion cannot be done and discusses prenatal care and after-delivery plan. They do not whimsically approve the termination anyway, regardless of what the “pro-life” talking heads argue, both because they know the law and because their medical ethics are at stake.

I have had patients like this. It’s a hard reality to tell them that they cannot have an abortion because they are too far along, even though they believed they were earlier in their pregnancy and that termination was still an option. I cared for just such a patient after doing her ultrasound for her termination appointment, informing my shocked patient that she was actually 30 weeks pregnant and could not have an abortion. And once she learned that abortion wasn’t an option anymore, she kept seeing me for prenatal care, and I delivered her healthy baby. She and her partner were so grateful that they came to me again for prenatal care during her next pregnancy, even though I was a two-hour drive away. I delivered that second child, too.

But a patient with a non-viable pregnancy is an entirely different situation. Imagine if instead her ultrasound at 30 weeks showed a fetus with a condition called “anencephaly.” This condition means the fetus has an underdeveloped brain and an incomplete skull, and is not compatible with life. The fetus can continue to grow in utero, but once born, the neonate will survive only hours, perhaps a day or two. There is no brain to regulate breathing or other physiologic functions like heart rate, electrolyte metabolism, vital functions that are crucial when transitioning from uterine life to extra-uterine life.

Now that same patient is faced with a choice: continue to feel her baby move and grow inside her, knowing there will never be a first day of school, a moving-to-college day, a walking-down-the-aisle day, and give birth knowing she and her partner will watch it gasp and have tubes inserted in all sorts of places as it slowly loses its life, or have an abortion that would require stopping the fetus’ heart and delivering a still born baby. Does that sound like something anyone wants to face? Does that sound like a decision that the government should interfere with and make cookie cutter laws to apply to?

This scenario doesn’t even take into account how sick the pregnant person can get, and how termination may be needed to save their life, but that happens, too. There are so many ways that pregnancy can cause harm – even permanent, life threatening harm – to the person carrying to term. How can I as a medical professional justify putting a pregnant person’s life at risk for a fetus that will never be able to live?

So, no, the monsters are not the physicians who provide multi-disciplinary expert care in these rare cases, nor are they the patients who are faced with this decision and choose what they feel is the most humane and appropriate option for themselves and their families. The monsters are those who would interfere with this decision-making process, shaming them for not doing what a talking head who wants to earn votes from the masses would do. The monsters are those who make mothers feel bad for doing what’s best for their children. The monsters need to step down and allow health care providers to do what they do best: provide evidence-based, compassionate health care.

First – New York, Next – Every State

img_7576Just last week the Governor of New York signed the Reproductive Health Act into law. That bill modernized the state’s archaic abortion laws, bringing them into sync with what most Americans believe – that abortion is a private medical decision involving complex personal, economic and health factors. Ultimately, it is a choice that should be left solely up to the person who is pregnant.

Like all medical procedures, abortion should not be subject to criminal penalties and no person should ever find herself worried about the legality of caring for their health. No woman should end up behind bars for making a decision that saves her life.

Of course, abortion opponents instantly began wringing their hands over the idea of ‘abortion until the moment of birth’. This is simply ignorance, for the law does no more than codify the legal guidelines of Roe v. Wade – that abortion is legal until the point in which a fetus reaches viability, and legal afterward only in cases where the physical or mental health of the mother is put in jeopardy. These conservatives bemoan the fact that abortion has been removed from the state’s criminal code, undermining one of their favorite talking points that they don’t believe any woman should be punished or jailed for seeking an abortion.

It’s not surprising that the right is misleading their followers on how these laws protect a woman’s choice. Think about that! They will do anything to win – and they stand unabashed in light of such manipulation of the masses. And it doesn’t stop there. They’ve attacked state politicians and the governor of New York himself for supporting this effort to keep women free to have a personal choice even if Roe is overturned.

As an abortion provider for more than 24 years, I can tell you that there are no patients seeking abortions at 37 weeks in order to fit into a prom dress, as they so gleefully insist is true. Late-term abortions are not performed because a patient suddenly decided a month or two from birth that they have changed their minds and suddenly want the baby to disappear. These are patients who have learned far too late that they are carrying children with terminal complications. They are about to make the hardest decision EVER, to have the grace and privilege of reducing their baby’s suffering. They are the patients whose own physical health is in jeopardy and for whom a conventional delivery or c-section could potentially kill them.

And yes, it is also those patients who struggle for months and months so traumatized by the pregnancy that they ignored the symptoms in the hopes that it would simply go away. Those who may have been abused – physically, sexually or emotionally – and never had the ability to end their pregnancy earlier. Or those who innately grasp their inability to remain pregnant; addicts who are incapable of the enormity of proper parenting.

While a vast number of later abortions are of wanted pregnancies, or involve medical complications of some sort, we cannot ignore those forced to wait far too long because of an abusive partners or a medical system that fails to meet the needs of the most marginalized. Lastly, we must understand the unjustness of poverty and an unsupportive conservative public agenda which forces abortion out of their hands.

I care for women every week who are late in their second trimester and facing this difficult decision. They travel from restrictive states to see me, and should they decide that they do in fact need a late abortion they are forced to travel on to yet another state because I can’t offer them the very care that New York can now provide. It is care that in reality every state should allow and every physician should support. It is comfort that I myself wish I would be allowed to provide in my conservative state.

Removing abortion care from the criminal code is what’s needed nationally in every state. No other medical procedure is criminalized. Abortion is healthcare at every stage in a pregnancy. Let that sink in. It is essential that we always put the medical and emotional needs of the pregnant patient first. Who are WE to judge the struggles of these patients? These women NEED our voice!