Editor’s Note: A number of commenters on this piece have argued that the pill may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. This is true: It *might.* According to information from both Planned Parenthood and from Ortho, hormones in the pill work by keeping a woman’s ovaries from releasing eggs — ovulation. Pregnancy cannot happen if there is no egg to join with sperm. The hormones in the pill also prevent pregnancy by thickening a woman’s cervical mucus. The mucus blocks sperm and keeps it from joining with an egg. The hormones also thin the lining of the uterus. In theory, this could prevent pregnancy by keeping a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus. The primary action is to prevent ovulation and fertilization in the first place. “Egg-as-person” advocates don’t care either way as their agenda is to redefine pregnancy by rejecting the medical definition, and ban all methods of contraception.
What do you do when all the discourse around a topic is based around a scientific fallacy—or even an outright lie—but pointing that out distracts from the most pertinent issues of a specific debate? Most of the time, the right wing war on science is an easy one to figure out how to fight: conservatives tell lies about science, pro-science people fight back with the facts. There are drawbacks to this strategy, since it’s often a matter of pitching emotions vs. reason, but at least the path of fighting lies with facts is clear. It’s the strategy we use to fight back against claims that global warming isn’t real, that evolution didn’t happen, or that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. But when it comes to debating whether or not the birth control pill should be made illegal, the strategy of simply pointing out that the right is lying falls apart, and unfortunately for very understandable reasons.
Here’s the story: Anti-choicers have been trying, in various states, to pass various versions of a “personhood” amendment that would define a fertilized egg as a person. They hope to sell this to the voters as nothing but a ban on abortion, but pro-choice activists who are familiar with anti-choice belief systems know that anti-choicers also hope that it can be used to ban the birth control pill. The reason we know they hope this is anti-choice activists are both hostile to contraception use and believe that the birth control pill works by stopping fertilized eggs from implanting. The problem is that the birth control simply doesn’t work by preventing fertilized eggs from implanting. That’s repeated a lot, but there’s no evidence to back that assertion up. The birth control pill works by tweaking a woman’s hormones so she doesn’t ovulate. Since an estimated half of fertilized eggs slough off on their own anyway, a woman who uses no contraception will “kill” far more fertilized eggs than a woman on the pill, simply because a woman on the pill doesn’t fertilize the eggs in the first place. If you are truly weeping over the souls of the departed fertilized eggs, then you would want every woman in the world on the pill, though that effort to keep from “murdering” one-celled “persons” would effectively end our species. (Sadly, not enough people push anti-choice arguments to their logical conclusions, even though anti-choicers are extremists who really should die by the sword they live by.)
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This is where the situation gets confusing and choices get hard. Because there are two separate issues at stake here: the fact that anti-choicers are trying to get the birth control pill banned and the fact that anti-choicers lie about the how the birth control pill works. In our soundbite-driven culture, trying to explain both these facts and how they work together is incredibly hard to do. You pretty much have to choose to fight anti-choicers on one front or another. You can explain how the science they’re working under is all wrong, or you can point out they’re trying to ban the birth control pill, but rarely will anyone have the time or column inches to explain both, and in enough detail for the audience to grasp the full picture.
With this in mind, most pro-choicers are simply stating that anti-choicers are trying to ban the birth control pill, which means that they inadvertently concede the scientific argument to the liars. This is coming up frequently now that Mississippi is poised to pass a personhood amendment. Katha Pollitt wrote about the amendment without explaining that the “science” behind it is simply wrong. Ann Rose failed to correct the lie in her piece on the Mississippi ballot initiative. Rachel Maddow went a step further, simply reporting anti-choice misinformation about the pill as if it were scientific fact. This stuff frustrates me as a cheerleader for more scientific accuracy in media, but I do understand why pro-choicers do it.
If you point out that the pill doesn’t actually “kill” fertilized eggs—and that instead it keeps those “deaths” from happening, if said “deaths” bother you, because the pill prevents fertilization from happening—then you have to explain to an audience how a bill that defines personhood at conception could be used to ban the birth control pill. You would have to get into a deep, involved explanation of how scientific misinformation often gets written into law. You’d have to point out that the same people passing personhood laws also refuse to believe in evolution or in global warming, so convincing themselves that the pill works by setting a birth control ninja to attack teeny-weeny babies isn’t really that big a leap. To explain how a lie like this could get by the courts, you’d have to point to various court decisions that rest on scientific misinformation get enshrined into law, such as in Carhart v Gonzalez, where Justice Kennedy invoked anti-choice propaganda about post-abortion depression in his decision, even though the repeated studies on this issue have shown that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that “post-abortive syndrome” exists.
Whew! That’s a lot of explaining! Ninety-five percent of your audience has stopped listening to your fascinating explanation of how an anti-choice myth about female reproductive systems could be written into law and pass a court test all while being a complete lie, and are now watching a YouTube video of a kitten playing in a hamster ball. Politically speaking, avoiding the tedious biological discussions of how the pill works and the tedious legal discussions of the interaction of science and policy and going straight to what the audience needs to know—anti-choicers are trying to ban the pill!—is the smart move. I don’t blame anyone for going there. It’s probably the right decision, and certainly caters to audience needs the most.
But still, it bothers me. Every time we fail to address the blatant lie about how the pill works at the center of this debate, we allow the lie to linger. We allow the public to believe women on the pill are sloughing off fertilized eggs frequently, when they simply aren’t. This works to give anti-choice slander of the pill a little more credibility, and works to increase the stigma attached to taking it. If they persist in this, and the stigma of the pill continues to grow, eventually they won’t need elaborate lies to ban it. They’ve already been able to convince much of the public that women who get abortions are dirty sluts. This scientific misinformation campaign is about convincing the public that the same is true of women who use the pill. And every time we let the lie go, we let the stigma of the pill grow.