The Tale of Emergency Contraception

This post was originally published in the July 2004 edition of “Emma’s Journal”, the newsletter of the Women’s Health project.

While all of the recent press about Emergency Contraception (EC) has been about how the FDA declined to make this prescription over-the-counter, we have been having our own drama with EC. In late February of this year, we applied for a grant through the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) to fund an EC advertising project. This project is to raise awareness of EC in the Hispanic communities of Eastern Iowa, specifically in West Liberty and Muscatine. We wanted to use the grant money to update information about EC, mainly the recent change of it now being effective up to 5 days after unprotected sex. We planned on putting up bilingual billboards about EC as well as newspaper and radio ads.

Emergency Contraception used to be known as the “Morning After Pill”. It uses high doses of birth control hormones that should be taken as soon as possible, but up to 5 days after unprotected sex, to prevent pregnancy. We hope that this project will make people more aware of EC, and dispel some EC myths, such as the confusion between EC and Mifiprex®, the abortion pill.

We thought this would be a relatively easy endeavor, but then the roadblocks started appearing. The first problem that arose was with Lamar Advertising, the billboard company. We had gotten a preliminary OK from the company to do billboard ads, but when we presented them with our design, they said that information about EC was too “sexual in nature” and refused to run the ads. They allow Birthright, anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers, to advertise their services for unintended pregnancies, but our ads about preventing pregnancies are not allowed. Since Lamar Advertises holds a local monopoly, we had to move away from billboards.

We decided to shift the billboard part of the grant money to cable television commercials. In the past, Mediacom has been very supportive and easy towork with, so we didn’t forsee any problems. Then we got an email expressing their concerns about us doing a commercial about “RU-486” (the early name for Mifiprex®). This allowed us to do a little phone education with Mediacom executives, and it gave us another demonstration of how necessary this campaign is.

This whole time, we had been planning on our advertisements being about EC as a general concept, not as an advertisement for any particular drug that can be used as EC – there are 21 drugs currently approved for this use. However, Mediacom came to the decision that, since the clinic dispenses Plan B®, the most commonly prescribed EC, we are therefore selling a medication rather than a concept. To the layperson, this may sound like a very insignificant detail, but the change means that we have to include the full list of side effects and complications in our commercial. According to the FDA and the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), this information has to be said aloud, which easily doubles, if not triples the length of our commercial, and thus doubles or triples our cost. Unfortunately, this change made television another dead end.

Luckily, we found some friendly faces on the EC journey. We met a local artist who agreed to do illustrations for our EC ads and our dog wash at no cost. We also found a regional Spanish newspaper called El Heraldo Hispano, that let us run full-color advertisements for a very reasonable price. Plus, we were lucky that the editor of El Heraldo Hispano also has a regular Spanish language program on a radio station out of Mount Pleasant. And thankfully, the process of updating our current EC brochure and translating it into Spanish went very quickly and easily. We have gotten 2000 copies of the updated, English version printed, and the Spanish brochure will go to print soon.

Finally, we are starting to make some progress with this project. Our first ad ran in El Heraldo Hispano on June 10, and we are going to start the radio ad very soon. The concept for our radio ads (and the defunct TV ads) is to have a few women sitting together in a cafe, ala Sex in the City, talking about EC. We just loved the idea of women sitting in the open and talking about their sexual health – it shows that being in control of one’s own life and body shouldn’t be taboo.

These last few months have brought such amazement, that such a simple medication can cause such controversy on both the national and local level. It’s too bad that advertising EC isn’t as easy as using it.