March 20 is Back Up Your Birth Control Day of Action, a day devoted to increasing awareness of and access to emergency contraception. Emergency contraception, sometimes called the “morning-after pill,” is a concentrated dosage of the same hormones found in ordinary birth control pills that can prevent a pregnancy from occurring when taken after unprotected sex, making it an effective “plan B” for helping women avoid unwanted pregnancies and abortions.

On August 24, 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved emergency contraception for sale over-the-counter without a prescription to women aged 18 and older. While the FDA’s decision was certainly a step in the right direction, there is still work to be done to ensure access for all women. To start, adolescents younger than 18 still need a doctor’s prescription to obtain emergency contraception. This can cause delays in obtaining the method, and, since it is more effective the sooner after unprotected sex it is taken, increase a young woman’s risk of an unintended pregnancy.

Additionally, cost can pose a barrier for many low-income women trying to obtain emergency contraception. Many insurance companies do not cover over-the-counter drugs, and only a few states cover emergency contraception for women on Medicaid without first requiring a visit to a physician or clinic, which delays access to the method. The difficulty poor women face in obtaining emergency contraception is especially troubling, given the fact that they have greater difficulty than other women in accessing contraception generally, and therefore have higher rates of unintended pregnancy: A poor woman in the United States is four times as likely to have an unintended pregnancy, five times as likely to have an unintended birth and more than three times as likely to have an abortion as her higher-income counterpart.

Emergency contraception has tremendous potential to prevent unintended pregnancy among women who experience contraceptive failure, unprotected sex or sexual assault. We should be working to remove the barriers that young women and poor women face in accessing all contraceptive methods, including emergency contraception. These barriers aside, the fact remains that many women and men still do not even know about emergency contraception, making continued efforts to raise public awareness about the method essential, as well.

Click on the links below for more information.

Disparities in unintended pregnancy in the United States

The importance of publicly funded family planning for low-income women