Emergency contraception confuses women

According to a new La Trobe University survey, Australian women have little knowledge about the safety and appropriate use of the Emergency Contraceptive Pill (ECP), despite it being available without prescription at pharmacies. 

ECP Less than half of the respondents thought that the ECP was safe to use.

The survey, conducted by La Trobe’s Mother and Child Health Research Centre in collaboration with researchers from Monash and Deakin Universities and La Trobe's Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society and in partnership with Sexual Health and Family Planning Australia, asked 632 women between 16-35 about their knowledge of, attitudes towards, and experiences with the ECP.  

‘Although the ECP has been available over-the-counter from pharmacies since January 2004, nearly all of the respondents knew it existed, but just under half of the survey respondents were aware of its easy access,’ said researcher Melissa Hobbs at La Trobe’s Mother and Child Health Research Centre.

Melissa said the survey results revealed an alarmingly high level of misinformation about the safety and use of the ECP. She fears these misconceptions could deter women from seeking out, and using- the emergency pill.

Of the respondents who said they chose not to use the ECP after having unprotected sex, over half said this was because they didn’t think they were at risk of becoming pregnant- which is untrue.

‘Adolescents need to be specifically targeted through school-based sex education about the vulnerability to pregnancy. They need to know that in the case of incorrect or inconsistent use of contraception that the ECP is a safe, available ’’back-up' method of contraception,’ said Melissa.

Fear around the severity of the ECP was a concern, with a third of the survey respondents believing it to be an abortion pill, some even confused it with RU-486 (mifepristone). More than half (61%) believed that the ECP would cause birth defects or a miscarriage if taken when a woman did not know that she was pregnant.

The emergency contraceptive pill is a high dose of the standard oral contraceptive pill, which works mainly by delaying or preventing ovulation. It does not cause an abortion if the woman is already pregnant.

Also wrongly known as the ‘morning after pill,’ the ECP is actually still relatively effective up to 120 hours after unprotected sex.

Naomi Knight, CEO of Sexual Health & Family Planning Australia said the findings are critical to future policy decisions by both Commonwealth and State and Territory governments.  

‘Australia has one of the highest abortion rates in developed western economies. This study highlights the continuing need for community education about the risks of unprotected sex.

 ‘There needs to be a greater push to increase awareness about the options available to women to help them avoid having to make very difficult decisions as the result of having an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy.’

The survey also found that, of the women who asked for the ECP over the counter, less than half of them thought it appropriate to be given advice by the pharmacist about long term contraception, like the Pill, but preferred to get this from their doctor.

To interview researcher Melissa Hobbs please call:

Mikhaela Delahunty,
Media and Communication Officer