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The history of the morning after pill

The origins of emergency contraception

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The morning after pill was an important step forward for women when it launched, giving them a newfound sense of control over their reproductive system. While it’s easily accessible now, the morning after pill has only been available in the UK since 1984. 

When was the morning after pill first made?

The first clinical trials for the morning after pill in the UK were undertaken in the 1970s. However, experiments on animals to determine the effect of oestrogen on pregnancy took place by researchers in the 1920s. This practice was intended for horses and dogs who had bred without the intention of their owners. 

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When was the morning after pill officially released in the UK?

While trials for the morning after pill took place in the 70s, it wasn’t until 1984 that it was finally licensed for use and made available from pharmacies. Early versions of it contained higher amounts of oestrogen which was taken over 5 days in order to prevent an unwanted pregnancy in the event of contraception failing or having had unprotected sex. 

How has the morning after pill changed since it launched?

Currently, there are two brands of the morning after pill available: Levonelle and ellaOne. After continued research, it was concluded that a pill containing just the progesterone hormone was safer than a combination of oestrogen and progesterone- hence Levonelle becoming available from 2000. One year later, women were able to purchase it straight from the pharmacy without having to answer questions about their sexual activity. 

ellaOne was launched around the same time, which initially you could only get from a GP or family planning clinic. It provided a more reliable option, as you can take it up to five days after unprotected sex without the efficiency dropping. Levonelle on the other hand is most effective in the first 24 hours. While it can be taken up to a three day period, it becomes less effective after each day that passes. 

In 2015, EU legislation finally changed to allow women to access ellaOne directly from pharmacies, with the option to purchase it outright. In the same year, the morning after pill was made available for girls under 16 without the need for parental involvement. 

The controversy surrounding the morning after pill 

There has long been controversy surrounding women’s contraceptive choices. One of the first objections to the pill was the religious point of view- wherein Catholicism sexual union should be for the sole purpose of leading to pregnancy. The pill was thought to encourage promiscuity and pre-marital sex.

Pro-life arguments which oppose abortion linked the morning after pill with the abortion pill, mistakenly thinking that the two work in similar ways. This is of course false, as the morning after pill is a type of contraception that prevents an egg from being fertilised in the first place, whereas the abortion pill is designed to terminate a pregnancy in the early stages. 

Another major area of controversy was the decision to allow girls under the age of 16 to obtain the morning after pill without a prescription. This spiked arguments which outlined that the age of consent is 16, so children under that age shouldn’t be encouraged to engage in sexual activity. In addition, it was also suggested that girls in this age group are not mature enough to make responsible choices. 

These arguments ignore the most vulnerable groups of girls under the age of 16 however; for example, those who have been sexually abused, don’t have a good family life, or who are simply scared to tell their parents. Giving them the ability to access emergency contraception ensures their safety and prevents them from being forced to keep an unwanted teenage pregnancy.

The IUD (copper coil) as emergency contraception

The IUD (intrauterine device) is a small, t-shaped device made from copper. It’s inserted into the base of the womb and functions as long-term contraception. Since 2017, it has also been available to use as emergency contraception. For this to work, it needs to be inserted up to 5 days after having unprotected sex which involves a procedure performed by a trained doctor. 

The coil is considered the most effective method of emergency contraception but it may not be suitable for everyone. You can order the morning after pill online at any time, even to have it as a backup option just in case. Find out more here.

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