Birth Control Breakdown: Plan B Access and Alternatives

PHOTO: Packaged Plan B contraceptives, April 5, 2013, in Chicago.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

In a move that surprised some Democrats and Republicans, the Obama administration announced it will comply with a judge's order to make emergency contraception available to girls of any age without a prescription.

Feds Now Back Morning-After Pills for All Girls

The decision could soon land morning-after pills like Plan B on drug store shelves next to family planning products like condoms and spermicides. Read on to find out how Plan B works compared to other forms of contraception -- temporary and permanent.

(Sources: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mayo Clinic)

Birth Control Breakdown

The IUD

These T-shaped gadgets are implanted inside the uterus, where they ward off the implantation of a fertilized egg by gently irritating the walls of the womb. The copper devices provide mindless birth control for up to 10 years, reducing the risk of pregnancy by 99.2 percent. Some hormone-releasing IUDs thicken the cervical mucus and thin the uterine lining, boosting the effectiveness to 99.8 percent -- but they're only good for five years. Both can be removed for a quick return to fertility.

Teens Should Be Offered IUDs, Top Doctors' Group Says

Birth Control Breakdown

The Implant

This matchstick-size rod is embedded under the skin of the upper arm and left to release a steady stream of progestin, which thickens the cervical mucus and thins the uterine lining for three years of birth control. The implant is considered 99.95 percent effective in preventing pregnancy, but fertility quickly returns upon its removal.

Birth Control Breakdown

The Shot

An injection of the hormone progestin in the buttocks or arm every three months can help reduce the risk of pregnancy by 94 percent by suppressing ovulation. It also thickens the cervical mucus, which can prevent sperm from reaching an egg if it is released. It can take more than 10 months for ovulation to resume after stopping the injections.

Birth Control Breakdown

The Pill

Oral contraceptives, available by prescription, cut the risk of pregnancy by up to 91 percent by meddling with the maturation of the egg and blocking fertilization. The hormone-containing pills, some containing both estrogen and progestin, while others contain only progestin, also thicken the cervical mucus and thin the uterine lining, but you have to remember to take them at roughly the same time every day. Fertility returns fairly quickly after discontinued use.

Birth Control Breakdown

The Patch

This wearable contraceptive releases progestin and estrogen through the skin and into the bloodstream, suppressing ovulation and thickening the cervical mucus. The patch, worn on the lower abdomen, buttocks or upper body excluding the breasts, is replaced once a week for three weeks and then removed for a fourth week for a menstrual period. Like the pill, it cuts the risk of pregnancy by about 91 percent, and fertility quickly returns upon removal.

Birth Control Breakdown

The Ring

The vaginal contraceptive ring releases progestin and estrogen, suppressing ovulation and thickening the cervical mucus. It's worn for three weeks, then removed for the fourth week for a menstrual period, then replaced with a new ring. Like the pill and the patch, it cuts the risk of pregnancy by about 91 percent.

Birth Control Breakdown

The Morning-After Pill

This emergency contraceptive can prevent pregnancy when taken up to five days after unprotected sex -- or after a contraceptive fail like a broken condom. Depending on the brand, the pill works by blocking ovulation, fertilization or implantation, but it's less effective than other means of birth control and should only be used in emergency situations. The morning-after pill will soon be available without a prescription to girls of all ages.

Birth Control Breakdown

The Diaphragm

This cup-shaped barrier covers the cervix, blocking sperm from entering the uterus. When used with sperm-killing spermicide, the diaphragm is up to 88 percent effective in preventing pregnancy. But you have to remember to put it in before having sex.

Birth Control Breakdown

The Condom

These stretchy barriers physically block sperm from entering the woman's body, cutting the risk of pregnancy by 82 percent (79 percent for female condoms). They can also protect against sexually-transmitted diseases. But because they're made from thin latex or other synthetic materials, they can break.

Birth Control Breakdown

The Gels and Foams

Sperm-killing spermicides are placed in the vagina up to an hour before sex and left for at least six hours afterwards. But when used on their own, the compounds are only 72 percent effective in preventing pregnancy.

Birth Control Breakdown

The Rhythm Method

Women with regular periods can carefully track the fertile part of their cycles and take steps to avoid sex or use barrier contraception for the nine days when pregnancy is most likely to occur. But the rhythm method, which is considered a natural approach to family planning, is only 76 percent effective at preventing pregnancy.

Birth Control Breakdown

The Surgical Options

For men and women wanting a more permanent form of contraception, these surgical options can cut the risk of pregnancy to virtually nil. Tubal ligation blocks the tubes that carry eggs to a woman's uterus, and a vasectomy severs the tubes that carry sperm to a man's penis -- but some sneaky sperm have been known to sneak through in the first three months after a vasectomy.

Birth Control Breakdown

A Word of Warning

Keep in mind that every form of birth control has its own list or pros and cons, including health risks, and that few guard against sexually-transmitted diseases. Talk to your doctor about what's right for you.

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