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CONTEXT: Despite advances related to the provision of emergency contraception in Canada, particularly the granting of independent prescriptive authority to pharmacists in 2000, little is known about the ways in which women perceive potential barriers to using it.

METHODS: In 2004, an ethnically diverse sample of 52 women living in Greater Vancouver participated in interviews that were analyzed for an assessment of women’s knowledge, attitudes and experiences related to emergency contraception, with particular attention to the ways in which ethnicity affected their stories.

RESULTS: Participants generally misperceived emergency contraception as an abortifacient, and often mistakenly thought that it has long-term effects on health and fertility. Knowledge gaps regarding reproductive physiology impeded clear understanding of when it is most effective. Participants also reported receiving subtle and sometimes overtly stigmatizing messages from providers when they sought emergency contraception. Asian and South Asian women were particularly concerned about negative interactions with providers; for example, they feared that female providers from their sociocultural community might recognize, chastise or gossip about them. Institutional policies (e.g., a Catholic hospital’s refusal to provide the method), coupled with low awareness of pharmacists’ prescriptive authority, also created barriers to use.

CONCLUSIONS: Women’s ability to benefit from emergency contraception is hampered by lack of knowledge and conservative cultural or social mores. Serious contextual and structural shifts are required before woman-centered approaches to provision of the method become the norm.