The Morning After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States

The Morning After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States

The Morning After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States

The Morning After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States


Since 2006, when the "morning-after pill" Plan B was first sold over the counter, sales of emergency contraceptives have soared, becoming an $80-million industry in the United States and throughout the Western world. But emergency contraception is nothing new. It has a long and often contentious history as the subject of clashes not only between medical researchers and religious groups, but also between different factions of feminist health advocates.

The Morning After tells the story of emergency contraception in America from the 1960s to the present day and, more importantly, it tells the story of the women who have used it. Side-stepping simplistic readings of these women as either radical feminist trailblazers or guinea pigs for the pharmaceutical industry, medical historian Heather Munro Prescott offers a portrait of how ordinary women participated in the development and popularization of emergency contraception, bringing a groundbreaking technology into the mainstream with the potential to alter radically reproductive health practices.


I first heard about emergency contraception during the 1990s, when a cluster of stories about a “back-up” method of birth control appeared in medical journals, popular magazines, and televised news reports, including a program on the popular music channel MTV. Although I was an assistant professor working on the history of adolescent health issues, and involved in reproductive rights activism on campus and in the community, I had not heard of emergency contraception before. Like others, I assumed that this was a relatively new contraceptive technology. As I was researching my last book on the history of college health, I discovered that this media campaign was the culmination of decades of efforts by reproductive health professionals and women’s health activists to make emergency contraception widely available in the United States.

This book is the first to describe the history of emergency contraception from its beginnings in the 1960s. Other historical accounts of this technology focus on the very recent past and present a story of uniform progress from “the nation’s best kept secret” to a dedicated product found on most pharmacy shelves. In these histories, there are clearly delineated opposing positions: on one side are those who support the technology as an uncomplicated scientific solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancy; on the other are religious conservatives who seek to ban the technology because they erroneously equate it with abortion.

Yet there is a much longer history of emergency contraception, one that is intertwined with the larger history of contraceptive research and reproductive politics in the United States. Like the history of birth control more generally . . .

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