Content warning: This article contains mentions of rape and sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted and is seeking help, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-4673.
University of Wisconsin-Madison junior and Sex Out Loud engagement coordinator Mia Warren is candid about her use of emergency contraceptives despite its stigma. The pill is her safety net when intimacy plans don’t unfold as expected.
“I’ve used Plan B quite a couple of times in my life for many different reasons,” Warren said. “One being I potentially missed a birth control pill and I wanted to be extra safe. I also used it in a relationship where he refused to use protection and wouldn't allow me to use them either.”
Warren isn’t alone in her decision. Approximately one in four sexually active women between the ages of 20 and 24 have used emergency contraceptives before, according to a 2019 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey.
Emergency contraceptives assumed an outsized role in reproductive care following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June, which made abortion virtually illegal in Wisconsin.
Consumer demand for emergency contraceptives rose as women looked to stock up on the tablets as a safeguard against potential pregnancies they would no longer be able to terminate. It skyrocketed to the point where retailers like CVS, Rite-Aid and Amazon placed purchase limits on emergency contraceptives, according to CNBC.
Those limits have since been lifted as suppliers have been able to meet the demand for emergency contraception. However, with conservative politicians in some states contesting contraceptive access rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, reproductive health advocates and lawmakers alike worry women may lose another vital reproductive care resource.
Wisconsin state Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) recommends stocking a supply of emergency contraceptives as a safeguard against potential future access barriers.
“It's not something where you should have to drive around to a pharmacy or find a hospital that will dispense it,” she said. “Just like when you have a headache, you don't want to be driving to the store. You want to have Tylenol already, same with emergency contraception.”
Explaining emergency contraceptives
While preventative in nature, emergency contraceptives are often caught up in the debate over abortion because of because of the misconception that they can stop an already-fertilized egg from developing into a fetus.
In actuality, the pills prevent pregnancy by inhibiting ovulation, according to the World Health Organization. Emergency contraceptives do not induce abortions nor can they harm a developing embryo in a pre-exisitng pregnancy.
Despite that, though, the rhetoric of life beginning at the point of insemination is pervasive. One of the most prevalent arguments against abortion relies on the belief that life begins at conception.
In 2021, the Missouri Senate voted to ban using taxpayer funds towards intrauterine devices (IUDs) and emergency contraception, according to the Missouri Independent. Missouri State Senator Denny Hoskins (R-21) claimed emergency contraceptives, too, take effect after the conception of a child.
Hoskins’ statement exemplifies a common misconception about the actual function of emergency contraceptives, according to Warren.
“Sperm can set in different places for multiple days,” Warren said. “That completely contradicts some religious perspectives that are like as soon as you're inseminated, there's baby making happening. Realistically, that's not how it always works and that’s why Plan B is so important.”
The importance of emergency contraception is imperative for those unable to control the use of contraceptives during intercourse, Warren argues. For victims of sexual assault, emergency contraception can be helpful for those looking to regain a sense of control over their bodies and prevent a pregnancy.
“One of the most traumatic things about sexual assault is that you don't have control over what is inflicted on your body,” State Sen. Roys said. “We can help empower people who are victimized to become survivors ... to give them back that agency that was stolen by offering emergency contraception.”
Emergency contraception is currently offered to rape victims upon request in Wisconsin emergency rooms, thanks to the 2008 Compassionate Care for Rape Victims Act. Roys worries hospitals could revoke that support if laws are changed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.
And, while important to survivors of sexual assault, Warren said that emergency contraception should be available for all to use without stigma. She and other members of UW-Madison’s Sex Out Loud are working to dismantle closed rhetoric around sex education.
“I guess we're still trying to live in this abstinence only realm, which just isn't realistic,” she said. “I don't think I know a single person that hasn't used the morning after pill, which is a lot of people.”
Whether using it out of necessity or not, emergency contraceptives are one of few ways women can exert control in an inherently uncontrollable situation, according to Warren.
“I always felt empowered when I was able to make that choice,” Warren said. “Maybe I should have been using better protection, but life happens. As a 16-year-old girl who didn't have a good sex education, I went about my options the only way I knew how.”
A statehouse battle over contraceptive rights
While Sex Out Loud is fighting to make contraceptives accessible on UW-Madison’s campus, a similar fight over reproductive rights is happening just blocks away at the State Capitol.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers called the Republican-controlled Legislature into special session on Oct. 4 in hopes of putting Wisconsin’s abortion ban to a statewide referendum vote.
In response, the Legislature gaveled in and gaveled out of the special session in under 30 seconds.
This was yet another attempt by Democrats to put the question of abortion on the ballot for Wisconsinites in the hopes that a referendum could do what they have been unable to do in the past few years with a Republican-controlled legislature — cement abortion rights into Wisconsin’s constitution.
Roys and Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) tried to repeal Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban in January 2021 with the Abortion Rights Preservation Act, over a year before Roe’s overturn.
Republicans made sure the bill went nowhere, according to Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay).
“We had over a year to have a hearing on that bill,” Andraca said. “Even if we didn't advance it as written, we could have had a discussion. We could have had some sort of a compromise and at the very least clarified where we stood in this state.”
Since then, Evers has been the sole guard against Republican attempts to regulate reproductive services. The Democratic governor vetoed bills like SB 593, which aimed to block abortions because of fetal anomalies.
Andraca said Wisconsin Democrats will continue their efforts to restore reproductive rights in Wisconsin to their pre-Dobbs capacity.
“We need a public hearing on these bills so that we can even just start to discuss it,” Andraca said. “We could have been trying to do something in Wisconsin to protect women, our healthcare system and our doctors, but Republicans chose to do nothing.”
Where to get it: Emergency contraceptives on and off of UW’s campus
UW students can still purchase emergency contraceptives despite their uncertain future.
Both Union South and Memorial Union’s Badger Markets offer a generic form of Plan B — the EContra EZ pill — for $13. Students can also access Plan B at local pharmacies, including Walgreens, without a prescription, and Walmart carries emergency contraceptive tablets for as low as $8.
While Plan B has become almost synonymous with the concept of emergency contraception, other options exist for different body types and urgency levels.
Another brand, ella, can be used up to five days after sex. Ella works best for those between 165 and 195 pounds unlike Plan B, which is most effective under 165 pounds. However, ella requires a prescription and is pricier than Plan B, which is available over the counter and without age restrictions.
Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin provides patients with multiple contraceptive options, including ella, at their 2222 S. Park St. location in Madison, according to spokesperson Lisa Boyce.
“It really is important that you take a method of emergency contraception that works best for your body and your circumstances,” Boyce said.
Planned Parenthood Wisconsin currently provides free ‘Make-a-Plan’ kits at all 22 health centers around the state. The kits contain a morning after pill, pregnancy test, condoms and information about threats to abortion access.
“Though the future of emergency contraception will likely stay secure in Wisconsin following Gov. Tony Evers winning reelection in the 2022 midterms, Boyce emphasizes its current availability and Planned Parenthood’s continuing commitment to making it available to Wisconsinites.
“No one should fear coming to Planned Parenthood to access information about abortion, miscarriage, or any other health care needs they may have,” she said. “We are a safe and confidential place for people to get information about all their healthcare resources, without judgment.”
Warren encourages anyone in need of emergency contraceptives to seek out resources, especially since the stakes of an unexpected pregnancy are higher than ever before.
“I'm here living my dream, working with Sex Out Loud and having a future,” Warren said. “If I would have gotten pregnant in high school, which I know happens for a lot of people, my life would look really differently right now.”
Annika Bereny is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in state news and politics reporting. Follow her on Twitter at @annikabereny.