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A few weeks ago I read an article in the New York Times titled “New Birth Control Label Counters Lawsuit Claims” (11/26/13).  The article reported that the Food and Drug Administration is studying whether to follow their counterparts in Europe and remove the requirement that manufacturers of emergency contraception (the Plan B “morning-after” pills) state on the label that the pills are believed to act by preventing implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterine wall.

The article noted that there has been opposition on religious grounds to insurance coverage of morning-after contraception because of the belief that it causes abortion.   These opponents of Plan B argue that a human being exists from the moment of fertilization, and so the destruction of a fertilized egg (in this case by blocking implantation) is tantamount to killing a human being.

Referring to an earlier article titled “Abortion Qualms on Morning-After Pill May Be Unfounded” (6/5/12), the Times cites evidence that purports to show that the pills actually act before fertilization to prevent ovulation or fertilization.  The newspaper quotes some medical specialists to the effect that the latest science has revealed that Plan B does not destroy fertilized eggs, and so the label requirement needs to be removed, at the same time removing any justification for anti-abortion lobbyists to classify the morning-after pills as abortifacients.  According to the June 2012 article, “It turns out that the politically charged debate about morning-after pills and abortion, a divisive issue in this election year, is probably rooted in outdated or incorrect scientific guesses about how the pills work.”

However, a careful reading of the two articles (and other sources that deal with the physiology of sex and pregnancy) makes it clear that the morning-after pill could not possibly be as effective as it is unless it blocks implantation of a fertilized egg.  For example, according to the Times, “scientists say the pills work up to five days after sex, primarily stalling an egg’s release until sperm can no longer fertilize it.”  This makes no sense, since sperm is viable on the average for only about two days after sex; if the egg has not been released as of five days after sex, then it is extremely unlikely that pregnancy could occur.  (This is the basis for calling the first seven days of a woman’s cycle a “pre-ovulatory safe period” for sex without pregnancy.)  In other words, if the morning-after pill taken five days after sex actually prevents a pregnancy, then in almost all cases it does so after fertilization, not before.

The June 2012 article goes on to say: “In one study using fertilized eggs that would have been discarded from fertility clinics, Dr. Gemzell-Danielsson found that adding Plan B in a dish did not prevent them from attaching to cells that line the uterus.”  But no one can seriously believe that cells in a petri dish can possibly replicate the complex physiological processes in human reproduction.  The interaction of morning-after pills with the chemistry of the womb is complex and occurs over a period of time, which is why taking the pills on the eve of implantation (which usually occurs a week-and-a-half or two weeks after sex) will not prevent pregnancy.  So the experiment proves nothing.

Clearly, the New York Times and the authorities cited have good intentions.  They support women’s right to have access to a full range of reproductive health options, and they wish to head off opposition to Plan B by anti-abortion zealots.  However, distorting the science is not the way to do this.  Rather, we should directly confront the notion that abortion is murder and that a sperm and egg become a human being at the moment of fertilization.   We should acknowledge that someone who accepts the extremist notion that prevention of implantation of a fertilized egg is murder is morally obliged to oppose not only Plan B, but also the use of contraceptive pills and IUDs as well.  Probably they should oppose the rhythm method, too (see my article
“Questions To Ask Your Priest”).

In reality, pregnancy is a process, not an absolute, and the dividing line between contraception and abortion is a slippery one.   No amount of junk science, however well-intentioned, can obscure this fact.