Emergency contraception is nothing to be ashamed of, so why is there such a stigma surrounding it?

“Stressed and embarrassed.” “Awkward.” “Intimidating.” “Nervous.” When I asked a group of women how they felt getting the emergency pill, more commonly known as the morning after pill, these were their responses.

A few weeks ago, I read a Guardian article about a woman who was refused the morning after pill because of the pharmacists’ personal beliefs. It made me think about my experience of getting the morning after pill, which has always been positive, and wonder how other women are treated when recieving it. 

The first time I took the morning after pill I was 19. The boy that I had slept with the previous night had informed me that the condom had split and so it would be best for me to get it. I remember franticly searching on Google for where I could get it from, at what time, and what the general etiquette was. I was absolutely terrified. Scared of being judged and shamed for having unprotected sex, despite the fact that I did use a condom.

When I got to the chemist, I shyly looked the pharmacist in the eye and asked if I could get the morning after pill. He smiled and took me to a side room, where he proceeded to ask me my name, date of birth, and why I needed to take the pill. After confirming with me that the sex I had was consensual, he handed me a small package and explained what the pill would do and what side effects may occur. He made me take it in front of him and asked if I had any questions. I thanked him, went to work, and never really thought about it again. 

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My experience of getting the morning after pill was exactly how all women’s experiences should be. Non-judgemental, factual, and easy. Unfortunately, that is not every woman’s experience.

I felt like I had to beg and give more reasons as to why I wanted the morning after pill in order to get it.

*Aimee

Aimee* has only had the morning after pill once, “it felt quite intimidating,” she explains. “When I asked at the counter the pharmacists assistant seemed stunned like it wasn’t often asked for. I went into a side room with a pharmacist to fill in a load of questions. The questions worked out that the chances of me conceiving, due to my fertility window, were slim, and the pharmacist was then reluctant to give me the morning after pill. I felt like I had to beg and give more reasons as to why I wanted the morning after pill in order to get it. The pharmacist then had to change some of my answers on the computer in order to be able to dispense the pill.” 

There are two types of morning after pill- Levonelle and ellaOne. Levonelle contains levonorgestrel, a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone, which is produced by the ovaries. If taken within 72 hours of having unprotected sex, the levonorgestrel will stop or delay ovulation and lower the risk of fertilisation. Similarly, ellaOne contains ulipristal acetate, which stops progesterone from working normally. Like Leveonelle, this will stop or delay ovulation, however, ellaOne can be taken within 120 hours of unprotected sex. It is advised to get the morning after pill as quickly as possible after having unprotected sex for it to be effective. 

Regardless of which emergency pill you take, it is not 100% effective. Despite taking the morning after pill, roughly 1-2% of women become pregnant. If a woman is over 11 stone or has a BMI above 25, the pill becomes less effective. If Aimee* had not pushed her pharmacist to give her the emergency pill, she could have been in that 1-2%. 

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The morning after pill is free from contraception clinics, sexual health or genitourinary medicine clinics, some GP surgeries, some young people’s clinics, most NHS walk-in centres, most pharmacies, and some A&E departments. The stigma that surrounds taking the morning after pill forces some women to by-pass these free options and buy it from second-hand sources.

Kayleigh is 25 and says that she has taken the morning after pill around 6 times in her life. “I’ve actually ordered it online and either collected it from the pharmacy or had it delivered to my house with next day delivery, so I didn’t have to interact with anyone or talk to anyone about it,” she says. Shockingly, the embarrassment that she feels from protecting herself from an unwanted pregnancy has cost her roughly £150. 

I always feel a bit embarrassed and nervous knowing I have to go and tell a stranger I’ve just had unprotected sex and need to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.

Alice, 25

Even when your experience of getting the morning after pill is okay, there seems to always be the threat of being judged hanging overhead. Alice, 25, explains, “Even though the experience is fine every time, I always feel a bit embarrassed and nervous knowing I have to go and tell a stranger I’ve just had unprotected sex and need to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Like they’d judge me on my decisions etc even though I know they don’t. I try to come across confident as if to show them I’m not irresponsible and [I’m] in control of my life.” 

Of course, when having sex protection should be used. But, the reality of the situation is, it isn’t. There are a thousand and more different scenarios that could result in unprotected sex, some of them more pleasant than others. When unprotected sex does occur, it should not be a woman’s role to be shamed and chastised for what happened. It takes two to tango, and it should be up to both parties to ensure that protection is being used.

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When Sasha* first got the morning after pill she said, “I felt slightly embarrassed and very nervous going in to get it.” Now, she explains “I’m not sure I would feel as embarrassed now as I understand no woman should ever feel that way when getting the pill.”

If you are a woman and you need access to emergency contraception, find your closest FREE clinic on the NHS website, and feel no shame when getting it. 

*Names have been changed at the interviewees request.