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National Survey Results on Public Knowledge/Opinions and OB/GYN Practice/Attitudes on Emergency Contraceptives (“Morning-After Pills”)

Two New Surveys of American Public and Physicians:

American Women Are Misinformed About Emergency Contraceptive Option; Once Explained, Many Say Would Be Likely to Use

–Ethical and Safety Concerns Not Major Factors In Stated Likelihood to Use “Morning-After” Pills —

OB/GYNS Consider “Morning-After” Pills to be Safe and Effective; While Most Have Prescribed Within LastYear, Only to Handful of Patients

— Most Physicians Who Do Not Perform Abortions State No “Objections or Concerns” Prescribing Emergency Contraceptive Pills —

Embargoed for Release Until: Wednesday, A.M., March 29, 1995

For further information contact: Matt James or Tina Hoff (415) 854-9400

Although nearly half (47%) of adult American women with the potential of facing an unplanned pregnancy say they would be likely to use “morning-after” pills, many are uninformed or misinformed about this emergency contraceptive alternative and few have ever used it, according to a new national survey on public knowledge and attitudes on contraception and unplanned pregnancy conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Louis Harris & Associates, Inc.

Six out of ten women with the potential of facing an unplanned pregnancy say they have “heard of” emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs), also referred to as “morning-after” pills. Yet, only a third indicate that they, in fact, know if “anything” can be done within a few days after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy.

ECPs are high-dose oral contraceptives known for approximately 20 years to be effective in preventing pregnancy if taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex. (Nausea and vomiting are common side-effects among women using emergency contraceptive pills. Contraindications for oral contraceptives, such as history of stroke or heart attack, also apply to potential ECP users, although clinicians may make exceptions for some women for one time use.) Although oral contraceptives have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency contraception purposes, doctors and other health providers who can write prescriptions may use any drug licensed by the FDA for unlabeled purposes — that is, oral contraceptives may be prescribed as an emergency contraceptive.

Health professionals are identified by most women (83%) as a source they rely on for information on “birth control.” However, preliminary findings from a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Fact Finders, Inc. indicate that obstetricians/gynecologists have made only a handful of their female patients “aware of” ECPs and do so, generally, in response to an emergency situation rather than during routine contraceptive counseling. Because ECPs are intended to be used as a back-up method for contraceptive emergencies — such as failure of a regular method or failure to use any method — their potential use relies heavily on an informed public: an individual must be aware that something is possible to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex to seek the care of a clinician in the first place.

Furthermore, most women who have heard of ECPs are misinformed about the time period during which they are effective: nearly half (48%) believe the pills must be taken 24 hours or sooner after intercourse to prevent pregnancy and 10% are not sure. Only 20 percent know that the method is effective up to 72 hours after unprotected sex. (To avoid confusion about how soon after intercourse the pills must be taken to prevent pregnancy, reproductive health experts now prefer the term “emergency contraceptive pills” instead of the more commonly known label “morning-after” pills.)

Physicians’ Views and Practices

The Kaiser/Fact Finders survey indicates that obstetricians/gynecologists are “familiar” with emergency contraceptive pills (77.5% say “very familiar” and 22% “somewhat familiar”) and most do not have “objections or concerns” about prescribing ECPs (72%). Among those who say they are “very familiar” with the method, the overwhelming majority consider ECPs to be “very safe” (88%) and “very effective” (85%). Overall, seven out of ten the obstetricians/ gynecologists surveyed say they have prescribed ECPs within the last year, but on a very infrequent basis: more than three quarters (77%) of those who prescribed ECPs did so five or fewer times.

The survey also indicates that physicians make a distinction between abortion and emergency contraception. Of the two-thirds of obstetricians/ gynecologists who say in their own practice they do not “ever perform abortions as elective terminations of pregnancy,” a majority (64%) say they have no “objections or concerns” about prescribing ECPs for their patients and, in fact, 65 percent did prescribe ECPs at least once in the last year. Among the more than half (56%) of physicians who cite ethical, moral, or religious objections as a main reason why they do not perform abortions, the vast majority — 84 percent — do not have the same objections about prescribing ECPs. Nearly half (48%) of physicians who do not perform abortions for ethical, moral, or religious reasons prescribed ECPs at least once in the last year.

“Our surveys indicate that many American women are interested in emergency contraceptive pills if faced with a potential pregnancy they want to prevent and most obstetricians/gynecologists find ECPs to be a safe and effective contraceptive alternative. Clearly, this option merits a closer look by both providers and policymakers,” said Mark D. Smith, executive vice president, Kaiser Family Foundation.

Views of American Women Most Likely to Experience An Unplanned Pregnancy

This section reports survey results for women considered most likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy, defined as those who are sexually active, fertile (and whose partners are fertile), and not pregnant or trying to get pregnant. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, at any given point in time, two-thirds of American women of reproductive age — some 39 million women — have the potential to experience an unplanned pregnancy. Ninety percent of these women use some method of birth control. And, while slightly more than half of unplanned pregnancies in the United States occur among the 10 percent of women who do not use any contraception, 47 percent occur among women who experience contraceptive failure or improperly use contraceptives.

Ninety-nine percent of women who have heard of ECPs say they have never used them, although four out of ten (44%) say they would if faced with a potential pregnancy they wanted to prevent. Women who had not heard of ECPs were told “‘morning-after’ pills (ECPs) are a particular kind of birth control pills that are taken after sexual intercourse [and that] if several of the pills are taken at the same time within 72 hours of sex, they may reduce the chance of pregnancy by up to 75 percent,” and then were asked: “would you be very likely, somewhat likely, or not at all likely to take them if you had unprotected sex and wanted to prevent pregnancy?” More than half of the women who had never previously heard of ECPs responded that they would be likely to use them to prevent a potential unplanned pregnancy (25% say “very likely,” 27%, “somewhat likely”).

The women are almost evenly divided as to whether or not emergency contraception poses “ethical concerns” for them: a slight majority (51%) say it does not vs. 47 percent who say it does. The survey found, however, that ethical concerns do not always translate into resistance to using ECPs. More than a third (37%) of the women who expressed an ethical concern about ECPs still say they would be likely to use the method if faced with a potential pregnancy they wanted to prevent. Likewise, almost equal proportions of women expressing concerns about the safety of “the pill,” as those who have none, say they would use ECPs.

Among all groups of women — including those citing no ethical problems with ECPs — there remain at least 40 percent who say they are “not at all likely” to use ECPs. And, most women (66%) think ECPs should continue to be available by prescription, as opposed to being “widely available, like condoms.”

Previous research has indicated that ECPs are widely available on college campuses through student health services. The results of the Kaiser/Harris survey find, in fact, that among women of all ages, races, and income levels, a higher degree of education corresponds to a greater level of awareness about emergency contraception and ECPs. A majority (51%) of college-educated women know pregnancy can be prevented after sex and have heard of ECPs. By comparison, only 11 percent of those who did not graduate from high school are equally informed. The majority of those who did not graduate from high school (58%) neither know anything is possible to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex, nor have heard of ECPs.

Women who had heard of ECPs were more likely than those who had not to list sources of information on contraception in addition to health professionals. For example, more than three quarters (78%) of women who had heard of ECPs listed “magazines” as a source of information on contraception as compared with fewer than a quarter (22%) of those who were not aware of the method.

The survey results are being presented Wednesday, March 29, at a briefing for journalists on emergency contraception sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Journalism Center.


The Kaiser/Harris Survey on Public Knowledge and Attitudes on Contraception and Unplanned Pregnancy was a random-sample, telephone survey of adults nationwide. The national sample consisted of 2,002 adults, 18 years and older, and was conducted between October 12 and November 13, 1994. The margin of error in the national sample is plus or minus 2 percent. The margin of error among the sample referenced throughout this release — 270 American women most likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy — is plus or minus 6 percent. Reports have been released from data collected in this survey on public knowledge and attitudes about abortion rates and teen sexuality. Future reports will be issued on talking with children about sexuality and other sensitive issues, men and contraception, and other aspects of contraception and reproduction.

The Kaiser/Fact Finders Survey on Obstetricians/Gynecologists’ Attitudes and Practices Related to Contraception and Family Planning was a random-sample, telephone survey of obstetricians/gynecologists drawn from the American Medical Association’s Physicians Masterfile. The national sample consisted of 300 obstetricians/gynecologists, and was conducted between February 1 and March 21, 1995. The margin of error ranges from plus or minus 3.4 and 5.7 percent. A companion survey of physicians in Family Practice is also being conducted. Future reports will be issued on physician attitudes and practices on other aspects of contraception and family planning, including preferred contraceptive methods, RU-486, abortion, teen sexuality, and general findings on contraceptive counseling and patient-physician communication.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, based in Menlo Park, California, is a non-profit, independent national health care philanthropy and is not associated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries. The Foundation’s work is focused on four main areas: health policy, reproductive health, HIV, and health and development in South Africa.

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Topline: Public Knowledge and Attitudes on Contraception and Unplanned Pregnancy in the US, Canada and the Netherlands 1995

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