WaPo FAIL: Nothing “Controversial” About ella

Jodi Jacobson

Today the Washington Post swallowed hook, line, and sinker the rhetoric of the far right anti-choice community on "ella," a new emergency contraceptive now available to women in the United States, calling it "controversial."

Once upon a time, newspapers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times displayed an ability to discern fact from fiction.  It seems that era is over.

Today the Washington Post swallowed hook, line, and sinker the rhetoric of the far right anti-choice community on “ella,” a new emergency contraceptive now available to women in the United States. 

Let’s start with the headline of the article, which reads:

Controversial ‘ella’ contraceptive now available in U.S. for first time

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What exactly is controversial about ella?  Research reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration showed that ella, or ulipristal acetate (UPA), is a safe and effective option for women seeking to dramatically reduce the risk of a pregnancy for up to 5 days after unprotected intercourse or contraceptive failure.  The FDA approved ella in August. According to the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, it was approved in 2009 by the European Medicines Agency and is already available in 22 countries outside the United States.

The Post states:

Studies involving more than 4,500 women in the United States show ella is safe, causing only minor side effects, such as headaches, nausea, abdominal pain and dizziness, the FDA said.


Ella can cut the chances of becoming pregnant by about two-thirds for at least 120 hours after a contraceptive failure or unprotected sex, studies have shown. The only other emergency contraceptive on the market, the so-called morning-after pill sold as Plan B, becomes less effectual with each passing day and is much less effective after 72 hours.

No controversial scientific findings, no evidence of high risks of side effects, already available and in use in other countries.  It’s a method that effectively addresses a public health problem (unintended and untenable pregnancies), enables women to exercise their right to decide whether, when, and with whom to have children, and reduces the need for abortion.

Controversial?  Not really.  But to the extent that the first impression is the most important, readers would get that sense right off the bat.

Oh, but wait….the “controversy” is created by anti-choice groups who are a) against virtually all forms of contraception, never mind abortion; b) against access to abortion in cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother; c) feign interest in things like violence against women, rape and sexually transmitted diseases when it fits their ideology but do everything in their power to undermine efforts to address these in public policy; d) have created their own definition of pregnancy because the medical definition doesn’t suit their ideological purposes; e) persistently misuse scientific and public health information to…suit their ideological purposes; and f) center most of their arguments on the premise that women are too stupid to make decisions on their own.

That controversy.

In this age of equivalency, The Post apparently feels it needs to give equal weight–actually more than equal weight if you consider the headline and tone of much of the article–to the modern-day equivalent of groups who claim the earth is flat.

It quotes Wendy Wright, of Concerned Women for America as saying:

“This is a deliberate effort to deceive women who would not otherwise take a drug that could harm their baby. Providing the drug through a website means that anyone can buy it, any number of times. A predatory man who is sexually abusing a girl or wants force an abortion on a woman will be able to easily obtain this drug.  “Without doctors’ oversight, girls won’t be tested for sexually transmitted diseases.” Why is it that CWA is not  When a woman experiences complications, the prescribing ‘doctor’ will be as anonymous as a drug dealer in a back alley.”

Like I said: CWA implicitly says women are too stupid to make decisions, and in real life is little concerned with, for example, increased funding for testing and treatment of sexually transmitted infections. In fact, it fights tooth and nail against comprehensive programs that would teach mutual respect, the need to get tested, and address early warning signs of violence and abuse.  It fights against funding for programs to address sexual violence and coercion and is in league with those who feel rape victimes should pay for their own rape kits, in addition to also wanting to force women to bear the children of their rapists. 

But the Post quotes CWA as though they were a legitimate group with a legitimate positions based on real evidence and consistent policies.

Moreover, the Post does what much of the rest of the media now does and punts on questions of significance.  For example, the article states that another form of emergency contraception, known as Plan B:

prevents a pregnancy by administering high doses of a hormone that mimics progesterone. It works primarily by inhibiting the ovaries from producing eggs. Critics argue that it can also prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb, which some consider equivalent to abortion.

“Critics argue….”

Which critics? 

Public health professionals? No.  Medical professionals?  No.  The American Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists or the American Medical Association?  No.

The “critics” in question are, again, anti-choice groups that seek to imbue fertilized eggs with full rights of person-hood, that are against all forms of contraception, and which want to change the definition and timing of biological processes to suit an ideological agenda.  Is it the purpose of a legitimate news organization to give credence to such groups?

Nowhere in this article is there included a quote or statement by a medical professional refuting their “definition” of pregnancy nor any mentiont that there is indeed an internationally agreed-upon medical definition of pregnancy.  When it comes to these sorts of issues, just declaring your own “opinion” of a medical defintion as fact is at best an attempt to misinform and at worst medical malpractice.

Why does the Post not point out that there actually is an internationally accepted definition of pregnancy, and that the groups that cry loudest about “abortion” do the least to prevent it?  Why do they leave the impression perpetuated by these groups that real, living women are too stupid to discuss with their own medical professionals the costs and benefits of one approach to contraception versus another? Why is the Post giving these groups “air time” at all?  And why is the Post enabling their efforts to make a controversy out of an advance in public health?

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