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Why This Group Hands Out Free 'Morning After' Pills

Lisa Gillespie/Side Effects Public Media

Rows of silver and pink plastic packages sit on the bathroom counter inside Bean, a Louisville coffee shop. Each package carries these words: emergency contraception.

The medication? It’s called Preventeza, from the company that also makes Vagisil. It was on the market for less than a year and didn’t do well – pills worth $2 million were sent to advocacy groups in Kentucky, Indiana and other states. 

And now these “morning after” pills have made their way into places like Bean, as well as community centers in eastern Kentucky, festivals in Lexington -- even the trunks of ride-share drivers.

Meg Sasse Stern, support fund director with the Kentucky Health Justice Network, says the goal is to make the emergency contraception widely available. 

“It’s important to us that people who might find themselves in need of this medication, that don’t necessarily have $50 to drop, [find it],” she said. 

And there’s another reason why preventing unplanned pregnancies is becoming even more important for reproductive rights groups. Kentucky has one abortion clinic left. It’s in Louisville, which creates problems for women who live hours away in more rural areas. 

In recent months and years, many Midwestern states have passed laws restricting access to abortion. Reproductive rights groups are challenging those laws in court. 

And with abortion being such a sensitive issue in Kentucky, so is contraception. In rural areas like the eastern part of the state, getting contraception can be especially tricky. 

Stern says, “It does make me think about that person who is in Whitley County and might need a dose of the morning after pill, and is afraid to go to their one pharmacy in town and ask for it, because the pharmacist is their neighbor.” 

There’s a big difference between a pill that induces an abortion and an emergency contraceptive. But some confusion remains, according to Alina Salganicoff, vice president of women’s health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

Preventeza and similar products like Plan B stop an egg from releasing from an ovary, preventing fertilization. “Emergency contraceptives will never disrupt an established pregnancy,” Salganicoff says. 

The pills the Health Justice Network is giving out must be taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex, and they work about 90 percent of the time. But they aren’t as effective for women who are considered overweight or obese under medical standards, researchshows

These sorts of drugs are becoming more widely used. 

“We’ve been tracking it since 2002, where 4 percent of women reported ever using emergency contraception pills,” Salganicoff says. 

About 22 percent of women had used the pills according to the most recent survey, which ended in 2015. 

Salganicoff says contraception can help women plan a pregnancy when they’re ready. And research shows that women who are able to plan have better financial and health outcomes, including for their children.

Some groups, including the Archdiocese of Louisville, oppose emergency contraception.

Ed Harpring, pro-life coordinator for the archdiocese, says, “A woman is taking that step, so to speak, kind of interrupting a natural cycle. And that’s where we would have a problem with it, just like we would have a problem with birth control pills.”

But many women see it as a personal health issue. And the Health Justice Network’s  Preventeza campaign came in handy for one woman during Kentucky Derby weekend.

When rideshare driver Brandon Pearson picked up the woman around 1 a.m., she asked if he knew of a pharmacy that was still open.

“And she basically shared too much information and lucked out with the right driver that was able to help them just by luck and happenstance,” he recalls. “I got to play emergency contraceptive fairy and help somebody out when they needed it.”

Stern says the Health Justice Network is still distributing about 4,000 doses at health fairs and other locations. 

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.