EC and Medical Abortion

EC is Not the Same as Medical Abortion

Emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs) are contraceptive methods that work after unprotected sex but before pregnancy. ECPs are not medical abortion (sometimes referred to as the “abortion pill”). The two therapies are different and it is important not to confuse them.

ECPs, sometimes referred to as “the morning after pill,” must be taken as soon as possible after unprotected sex, and are recommended to be taken within 3-5 days. They are not effective after this time. They work by preventing the release of an egg (ovulation) or by preventing the egg and sperm from meeting. They cannot interrupt an established pregnancy and they also do not stop a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

There are four different kinds of ECPs: the Yuzpe method (a higher dose of regular birth control pills containing estrogen and progestin), levonorgestrel (progestin-only), ulipristal acetate, and low-dose mifepristone. The mifepristone-based ECPs contain 10-25 mg of mifepristone and are available in Armenia, China, Russia and Vietnam.

The “abortion pill” or “medication abortion” also uses the drug mifepristone, but in a completely different dose and given at a different time. While ECPs need to be taken within a few days after unprotected sex, the timeframe for medical abortion is up to two months (63 days) after a woman misses her period, during early pregnancy. After the pregnancy is confirmed, the woman takes a large dose (200-600 mg) of mifepristone, typically followed by another drug called a prostaglandin (misoprostol) that causes uterine contractions. Used this way, the drugs cause an abortion. The dose needed to induce an abortion is 10 to 60 times greater than that used to prevent ovulation and stop a pregnancy from starting, as emergency contraceptive pills do.

Emergency contraception and early medical abortion are both important options for women. In order for women to understand their choices and make informed decisions, they need accurate information about these therapies, and the differences between them.

For more information on how levonorgestrel pills (the most common kind of EC) differ from medical abortion regimens, please see our fact sheet on EC and Medical Abortion.