While consistently supporting women’s right to legal abortion, The New York Times writers on occasion seem unable to refrain from pushing illogical arguments that do not help the cause. I posted about this on two previous occasions in 2013 and in 2014. On September 7, 2018 the newspaper published an article by Pam Belluck with the title “Science Does Not Support Claims That Contraceptives Are ‘Abortion-Inducing'”. The article rightly points out that anti-abortion zealots run counter to established medical opinion when they claim that pregnancy begins with fertilization rather than implantation of the fertilized ovum in the uterine wall.
But then Belluck states that “a growing body of research strongly indicates” that emergency contraceptive pills don’t prevent implantation. “Instead, the pills, if taken up to five days after unprotected sex, work to stop fertilization from occurring. They do this by delaying ovulation… or by thickening cervical mucus so that sperm have trouble swimming and reaching the egg to fertilize it.”
A moment’s thought shows that this claim makes no sense. As Belluck says, the Plan B pills work for up to five days after intercourse. But ovulation in a large proportion of cases must have occurred before the pills were taken. If the pills worked only by preventing ovulation, then they would fail to prevent pregnancy in all those cases, and that is false.
When people say that some of the Plan B pills are effective up to 120 hours after unprotected sex, what they mean is that, among all women who would have otherwise become pregnant, most will not become pregnant if they take the pills within five days. As any fertility expert will tell you, in order to get pregnant you need to ovulate as soon as possible after intercourse. After 48 hours sperm rapidly lose motility, and the chances of sperm fertilizing an egg after waiting 120 hours for ovulation are near zero. Thus, among the women who take emergency contraception after four or five days and who otherwise would have become pregnant, almost all have already ovulated.
The fact that the pill is effective up to five days after sex obviously and incontrovertibly means that the later in the five-day window one has waited, the more likely it is that the drug is working post-fertilization. Clearly, if egg and sperm have already met, the pill is either directly destroying the fertilized ovum or preventing its implantation in the uterine wall. It defies logic to deny something so obvious, as The New York Times has done before (see my previous post “Well-Intentioned Junk Science Is Still Junk Science”).
Supporters of reproductive rights should not attempt to appeal to anti-abortion zealots with erroneous claims that the effective action of post-coital contraceptives is exclusively pre-fertilization. We need to freely acknowledge that the processes involved in establishing a pregnancy are complex, and the ways in which contraceptives impede these processes are also complex. We cannot disguise the fact that several common contraceptives, including morning-after pills, IUDs, and ordinary birth control pills, sometimes act after conception. Thus, all these methods are potential targets for those who claim that any destruction of a fertilized ovum is murder. Ironically, to be consistent, anti-abortion extremists should also oppose the rhythm method — the only form of birth control permitted by the Catholic church — as I point out in “Questions to Ask Your Priest”.
To support their extreme stance, the anti-abortion movement routinely makes fanciful, unscientific claims — that first-trimester embryos feel pain, that legal abortions are less safe than childbirth, and that most women are traumatized by abortion. We should counter their falsehoods by always giving accurate information. If we indulge in junk science, we are descending to their level.