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Emergency Contraception (EC)

Overview: Is it a contraceptive or an abortifacient?
Conflicts among pro-life, pro-choice & medical sources.


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Is Emergency Contraception (EC) contraceptive or a method of inducing abortion?

This is one of a few "hot" topics where religious and social conservatives are battling with many health professionals, scientists, therapists, and others.

Current "hot" topics include:

In the case of EC, much of the conflict is centered around two factors:

  1. When pregnancy actually begins.

  2. Whether EC is capable of preventing implantation of a blastocyst (popularly referred to as a fertilized ovum) in the wall of the uterus (a.k.a. womb).

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Areas of consensus:

The definition of terms related to conception, implantation, and pregnancy is a bit of a mine field. Different groups assign slightly different meanings to various words. This often makes communication between groups promoting and restricting abortion access -- that is, pro-choice and pro-life movements -- quite difficult or impossible. Each side criticizes the other for distorting established definitions in order to improve their arguments.

Still, there is general agreement that:

  • Contraceptives include devices, sexual practices or medications that prevent pregnancy from starting.

  • Abortifacients are actions, devices, or medication that terminate a pregnancy that has already begun.

Because there is no consensus on when pregnancy begins, and no agreement on what EC actually does, the two groups end up with opposing beliefs about whether EC is an abortifacient or a form of birth control.

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What pro-choicers and the medical community generally believe:

The medical and pro-choice communities generally define pregnancy as beginning when the blastocyst is fully implanted in the wall of the uterus. From that event onwards, there is zero possibility that EC will have any effect. Thus they argue that EC cannot be regarded as an abortifacient.

Mary Pendergast of the FDA stated in 2006 that:

"The scientific and medical definition of abortion is after implantation [in the wall of the uterus]...These birth control pills are used to prevent pregnancy, not to stop it. This is not abortion." 3

At the time of the FDA announcement, Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said that the FDA had taken "a bold step -- a courageous step..." because it brings the information to far more women.

Currently, physicians generally agree that:

  • Pregnancy does not begin when an ovum is fertilized; i.e. during the conception process.

  • Pregnancy typically begins about 6 to 14 days 7 after conception, after a blastocyst has traveled down a fallopian tube and becomes fully implanted, generally in the lining of the womb.

  • Abortions are defined as medical interventions after pregnancy begins.

  • EC works in only two ways: it can prevent ovulation -- the release of an ovum -- if one has not been released.

  • If an ovum has been released it or can prevent conception from happening.

  • Years ago, it was believed that EC might inhibit a fertilized ovum (a.k.a. zygote) from implanting itself in the lining of the womb. However subsequent research showed that this is extremely unlikely or impossible. Thus there is a high level of certainty that EC does not prevent implantation.

  • It has no effect after conception has occurred.

Thus, physicians generally believe that EC is not a form of abortion. They do not induce abortions, but rather prevent pregnancy from starting up.

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What pro-lifers generally believe:

Most pro-life groups have a different definition of the term "pregnancy." They maintain that pregnancy begins during the process of conception when a unique DNA is assembled using components from the woman's ovum and the man's spermatozoon.

They further believe that EC can act in three ways, to:

  1. Prevent ovulation.
  2. If ovulation has occurred, it can act to prevent conception.
  3. If conception has occurred it can act to prevent implantation.

Many pro-life groups appear to concentrate on the third option to the exclusion of the other two.

In 1997, Gracie Hsu of the Family Research Council said:

"For pro-lifers in general, we believe that [human] life begins at conception and that means this, technically, is an abortifacient." 4

In 1997, the "Christian Medical & Dental Society" (CDMS) of Bristol, TN issued a press release. They are a conservative Christian group who use the pro-life definition of pregnancy. They stated that:

"Contrary to the claims of some, the so-called 'morning-after pill' will dramatically increase - not decrease - the tragic number of abortions in this country. The public is being misled into believing that this concoction prevents a pregnancy when actually in most cases it will abort a pregnancy. ... Approving and promoting these pills is not only medically irresponsible, it is also sending the wrong message to the American public. Instead of promoting this as an alternative for family planning, we should be emphasizing sexual responsibility." 5

In 2002, Robert Maginnis, vice president of the Family Research Council said:

"As far as we're concerned it causes an abortion to take place. It kills a human embryo." 1

Since the CDMS statement was made in early 1997, the group has posted an undated statement on their web site that seems to take a neutral stance on whether EC prevents implantation. They state:

"While there are data that cause concern, our current scientific knowledge does not establish a definitive causal link between the routine use of hormonal birth control and abortion. However, neither are there data to deny a post-fertilization effect." 6

Plan B and other ECs are actually heavier than normal doses of hormonal birth control. It is unclear whether the CDMS intends this statement to also apply to EC. We Emailed them asking for their position on this factor. As expected, we, did not receive a response. We searched their web site for the terms "emergency contraception," "EC," and "Plan B" and found no hits.

On 2008-DEC-12, the Roman Catholic Church issued a papal document titled "Dignitas Personae." It considers EC to fall "within the sin of abortion." Catholic hospitals will probably start to deny EC to women worldwide. More details

Although medical researchers have largely abandoned the belief that EC can interfere with the blastocyst's implantation, most pro-lifers continue to believe that it does. Since they also believe that a pregnancy starts a week or two before implantation, they regard EC to be a potential abortifacient. They believe that EC can murder a living person. Thus, they are heavily motivated to oppose women's access to EC.

Many pro-life groups appear to ignore the fact that EC usually acts as a contraceptive by preventing conception; they seem to assume that it most frequently or always acts as an abortifacient.

Thus:

  • If one accepts that pregnancy begins during the process of conception, and that EC can prevent implantation, then EC could act as an abortifacient.

  • If one accepts that pregnancy only begins after implantation, or that EC cannot prevent implantation, then EC always acts as a contraceptive.

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Who is right?

Most religious conservatives and pro-life supporters, alone, classify EC as abortifacient medication. This is consistent with their definition that pregnancy begins during the conception process and consistent with their belief that EC can prevent implantation of a blastocyst. Most physicians, religious liberals and pro-choice supporters classify EC as a contraceptive, because they believe that it prevents ovulation or conception and almost certainly does not interfere with implantation.

The fundamentalist Christian organization, Family Research Council (FRC), accuses what they call the "Contraception and abortion industries" of deliberately confounding:

"... the events of female fertility for self-serving reasons. For example, they attempt to redefine the beginning of pregnancy: They claim that pregnancy starts upon implantation of the embryonic human being, rather than when the new life is created at fertilization. By insisting that 'pregnancy begins at implantation,' they then market drugs that destroy life before or upon implantation as 'contraception,' even though such anti-implantation drugs are actually abortifacients. They also gain ground in their efforts to classify the pre-implantation embryo as an entity lacking in rights, and therefore available as material for scientific research, or as a subject for genetic screening."

"The abortion and contraception lobbies believe they can get away with this rather bad faith 'sleight-of-definitions' because doctors have traditionally been able to confirm pregnancy only upon implantation. At this point, the early developing placental tissue produces HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin), a hormone which doctors can detect in the mother's urine and blood to verify pregnancy. The mother is obviously pregnant before that point, however, since the embryo's journey to the uterus requires five to seven days."

"The ability to confirm life's existence is of course different from the point at which the life begins. But confounding the two allows the contraception industry to market abortifacient drugs as 'contraceptives' to an unsuspecting public." 2

The statement that the woman is "obviously pregnant" before implantation is only valid if the pro-life/religious conservative definition of pregnancy is used. The comment about "destroying life before or upon implantation" only applies if EC can prevent implantation of a blastocyst after the ovum is fertilized. This latter belief was held by some researchers years ago, but has now largely been abandoned. If modern research considered, the FRC's position makes no sense.

The historical record shows that physicians have not attempted "... to redefine the beginning of pregnancy." there has been a consensus among physicians for many decades that pregnancy begins at implantation. It is only social and religious conservatives, and then only recently, who have redefined it as occurring at conception. Also, research has demonstrated that if EC is taken too late to prevent conception, that it will not interfere with implantation. There is some indication that it might even improve the chances of implantation.

Some pro-choicers assert that pro-lifers, social conservatives, and religious conservatives define EC as abortifacient in order to convince more women to not consider taking EC. This would place women at a much grater risk of becoming pregnant. Since about half of all unintended pregnancies end in abortion, the overall effect of not taking EC would be a significant increase in the number of surgical abortions and abortions using RU-486 across the country.

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Conclusions:

Emergency Contraceptives can be considered an abortifacient:

  • If the pro-life timing of the start of pregnancy is used, and
  • If EC is taken too late to prevent ovulation, and
  • If EC is taken to late to prevent conception, and
  • If one rejects the findings of medical research concerning the interaction of EC and implantation.

Otherwise, they act as a contraceptive.

References and a footnote:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Lawrence Morahan, " 'Morning-After' Pill Available at Some DoD Clinics," CNSNews.com, 2002-JUN-3, at: http://archive.newsmax.com.
  2. "Little Pills: Targeting Youth with New Abortion Drugs," Family Research Council, at: http://www.frc.org/
  3. FDA panel endorses 'morning after' pill," CNN, 1996-JUN-29, at: http://www.cnn.com/
  4. John Schwartz, " Morning-After Contraceptive Given Government Approval," The Washington Post, 1997-FEB-25, at: http://tech.mit.edu/
  5. Press release, 1997-FEB-25, Christian Medical & Dental Society, at: http://www.cmda.org No longer online.
  6. "Hormonal birth control: Possible post-fertilization effects of hormonal birth control," Christian Medical & Dental Society, undated, at: http://www.cmda.org/
  7. There are no precise estimates of the interval between conception and implantation -- i.e. between the pro-life and pro-choice timing of the start of pregnancy:

Site navigation: Home > "Hot" topics > Abortion > Reducing abortionEC menu > here

Copyright © 1999 to 2013, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published on 1999-JAN-13
Latest update: 2013-MAY-12
Author: B.A. Robinson
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