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Human sexuality and gender topics

Preventing and ending pregnancies
using birth control (a.k.a. contraception)

or abortifacients.

This essay is currently being updated

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In ancient times:

Ancient civilizations generally promoted childbirth -- for a variety of reasons.

bullet A woman needed to have many children in order to have at least two survive to adulthood.
bullet Ancient tribes were often surrounded on all sides by other aggressive groups. A high birth rate was needed to create an effective army for defense and offense,
bullet Life expectancy was quite short -- on the order of 30 years. Women were typically married shortly after puberty and had children quickly so that the latter would grow to adulthood before their parents died of "old age."

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During the 20th Century:

Almost all faith groups in North America, Canada, and the UK, until the early 20th century, a were opposed to the sale and use of contraceptives, even by married couples. Churches gave fertile couples two choices: abstinence or enforced continual pregnancies. Both are major stressors that can adversely affect marriages.

The Church of England bravely deviated from this teaching in 1930 when they approved the use of birth control in certain specific situations. Almost all other Protestant faith groups quickly followed the lead of the Church of England in subsequent years. Today, the Roman Catholic Church is the only large faith group in North America that still tries to ban the use of birth control among their membership. They are not notably successful at this, because the birth rate among Catholic couples is almost identical to the national average.

Governments in have drastically altered their policies. Twenty five years ago, some prohibited the open display of contraceptives in pharmacies. Now, these same governments are actively promoting their use to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies.

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Several factors now promote the use of birth control or abstinence:

One major concern is that overpopulation places excessive stress on the environment, speeding up its degradation and global warming.

A second major concern is the increasing gap between:

bullet The menarche (first menstruation) in girls and puberty in boys -- typically 12 years of age 1 -- and
bullet Age of first marriage.

In ancient times, the gap was measured in months. Today, it is typically on the order of 15 years.

The age at menarche is currently decreasing perhaps due to better nutrition during childhood and increasing levels of sex hormones in the environment. Most teens now become sexually active in high school. One study of sexual intercourse among American teens showed that:

"The average age at first sex varied with ethnicity, from 15.2 years to 17.5, with blacks having sex at the youngest ages and Asians at the oldest. Lower family income also predicted sex at an earlier age." 2

The median age of first marriage in the U.S. is about 27 for men and 25 for women. 3,4 These ages have been increasing about 8 months per decade. 4

This is an interval of time when many individuals wish to remain childless, in order to pursue an education and become established in a career before setting down and starting a family. Almost all youths and young adults reject the idea of sexual abstinence before marriage. On the order of 95% of individuals at first marriage are non-virgins. Many feel that birth control is a priority in order to prevent pregnancy before marriage.

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Confusion about contraceptives and abortifacients:

Contraceptives, like condoms, prevent pregnancy. Abortifacients, like RU-486 (called Mifegymiso in Canada) end an established pregnancy.

Some are in the form of medication. Others, including condoms and IUDs (Intra-Uterine Device), take the form of contraceptive devices.  They work in different ways:

bullet Some delay ovulation (the release of an ovum from an ovary).
bullet Some inhibit conception (the process by which a spermatozoon joins with an ovum to produce a zygote with a unique DNA).
bullet Some inhibit the implantation of the resulting blastocyst in the wall of the uterus. (A blastocyst is what a zygote becomes over time as it travels down a woman's fallopian tube as a result of multiple cell divisions)
bullet Some cause an blastocyst that has already implantated in the wall of the uterus do die.
bullet Some work in more than one of these ways.

Unfortunately, there is no concensus about the definition when pregnancy and human personhood begins:

  • Religious conservatives and pro-lifers generally define the start of pregnancy -- and the start of human personhood -- as both happening during the process of conception. They often refer to this as "the instant of conception." However, in reality, conception actually takes hours.

  • Religious liberals, and pro-choicers generally use the definition of the start of pregnancy as used by physicians, fertility researchers, biologists, etc.: i.e. pregnancy begins when the blastocyst is implanted in the lining of the womb. They often define human personhood as developing later in pregnancy.

To further confuse matters, when Emergency Contraception (EC) was originally developed, the precise mechanism(s) by which it worked was unknown. There were originally suspected to be three possibilities. EC might:

  • Delay ovulation,

  • Prevent conception, and/or

  • Inhibit implantation of the blastocyst in the inner wall of the uterus: 1

Further research revealed that the third possibility was extremely unlikely or impossible. However, most religious and social conservatives rejected this evidence and still proclaim that EC often works by preventing implantation.

  • Since most religious conservatives and pro-lifers regard pregnancy as beginning at conception, and they further believe that EC sometimes or always prevents implantation, then they conclude that EC can or always acts to terminate a pregnancy. They regard it as a potential abortifacient. Some say that it is always an abortifacient.

  • Most religious liberals and secularists regard pregnancy as beginning at implantation. They recognize that EC always or almost always works by delaying ovulation or preventing conception. There is some evidence that if the blastocyst reaches the uterus, EC might even encourage implantation. So, they regard EC as a true contraceptive.

Thus, whether emergency contraception (EC) pills like Plan B as a contraceptive or an abortifacient often depends upon a person's religious beliefs. It might take many years to resolve this conflict.

Still another complication is that originally, in the United States, the FDA required manufaturers of EC to print a statement on the box stating that the pills might prevent implantation. The manufacturers have asked to have this requirement lifted, but have not been successful.

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Preventing pregnancies among teens:




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References used:

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

  1. "Falling age at puberty," The INFO project, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health at: http://www.infoforhealth.org/
  2. Nicholas Bakalar, "New Findings Add Nuance to Discussion of Early Sex," New York Times, 2007-JUN-05, at: http://www.nytimes.com/
  3. "Estimated Median Age at First Marriage," U.S. Census Bureau, Page 7, at: www.census.gov/ This is a Microsoft Power Point presentation that may require downloading of a free PP viewer
  4. Sheri & Bob Stritof, "Estimated Median Age at First Marriage, by Sex: 1890 to Present," About.com: Marriage, at: http://marriage.about.com/
  5. Maria Isabel Rodriguez, "5 myths about the emergency contraceptive pill, busted," Bedsider, 2016-JUN-23, at: https://bedsider.org/

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Copyright 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-NOV-09
Latest update: 2007-DEC-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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