Emergency contraception: an anomalous position in the family planning repertoire?
Emergency contraception (EC) can be used up to 72 h after sex to prevent pregnancy. Internationally there is wide variation in the availability of EC. In the USA it has only recently (1997) won approval from the FDA, while the UK and New Zealand have seen calls for over the counter availability. In recent years surveys, editorials and opinion pieces in medical journals have pointed out that increased access to EC could help to tackle the unwanted pregnancy rate, especially among teenagers, and concluded that lack of knowledge of EC is the major barrier to use. However, women in a UK study have expressed concerns that it is not safe to use the method repeatedly and cited general practitioners (GPs) as one of the sources of this belief, which contradicts the professional guidelines and the rationale for de-regulation. A subsequent study sought to seek the views of GPs about prescribing EC and explored reasons for the gap between the views of women using UK family planning services, GPs and professionals at the public policy level. Data from two studies are presented. In the first study, 53 women seeking emergency contraception were interviewed at two family planning clinics. In the second, semi-structured telephone interviews were completed with a random sample of 76 GPs from three English health authorities. Interviews were recorded, transcribed and thematic analysis was conducted using the constant comparative method. EC was rarely described, by users or GPs, as an acceptable contraceptive option. Consultations for emergency contraception were viewed by GPs as an important opportunity to discuss the woman's future contraceptive needs. Repeated use of EC was not encouraged and a discussion of contraceptive needs could range from a mild enquiry to quite forceful messages contrasting EC to 'regular' and 'proper' methods. The medical literature suggests that EC is underused because of a lack of awareness. Commentators have recommended educating health professionals and women about EC and increasing availability through de-regulation. The data presented in this paper show that British GPs are not enthusiastic about the de-regulation of EC, but the reasons are complex and related to concerns about planned contraception and sexual behaviour. It is suggested that it may be because EC is used after sex that it seems to occupy an uncomfortable place within the contraceptive repertoire.