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'Morning-after' pill a well-kept secret

By Darlene Superville

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Nearly four years after the government approved "morning-after" pills to help prevent unwanted pregnancies following unprotected sex, many women don't know about them and few doctors tell them such an option exists.

Widespread use of this method of emergency contraception could prevent millions of accidental pregnancies and hundreds of thousands of abortions, say women's and medical groups that are trying to publicize what they call the best-kept secret in female health care.

"It's impossible for people to get it unless they know about it," says Elizabeth Cavendish, legal director for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

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Opponents, including the Roman Catholic Church, condemn it as a form of abortion because the pills, two doses taken 12 hours apart, may block a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

"Its mode of action is to abort children, whose lives begin at conception," says Judie Brown, president of the American Life League. "Nobody admits that it causes abortion, and in fact it does."

Abortion rights advocates dispute that, noting the medical definition of pregnancy is when a fertilized egg attaches to the uterus.

The morning-after regimen also works by delaying the ovary's release of eggs or preventing a meeting of sperm and egg. High doses of standard birth-control pills work, too.

The pills must be taken within 72 hours of sex to work and are more effective when used as soon as possible.

Of the 6 million pregnancies in the United States every year, about half are unplanned, and about half of those are aborted.

Increased use of morning-after pills could cut the number of accidental pregnancies and subsequent abortions by up to half, says Princeton professor James Trussell, a reproductive health expert.

But many women don't know the pill exists and few doctors tell them, surveys find. Some women also confuse it with RU-486, the abortion pill used to terminate early pregnancies.

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Less than half of American women know they can do something soon after having unprotected sex to reduce the risk of an unwanted pregnancy, according to a November 2000 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health care philanthropic organization, and Lifetime Television.

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