Commentary Contraception

Despite The Evidence, Anti-Choicers Persist in Lying About Emergency Contraception

Amanda Marcotte

Evidence that emergency contraception is just that -- contraception -- has prompted agencies to change the labeling of the drug to underscore that EC prevents fertilization. But the strategy of anti-choicers on EC is the same-old same old: They keep blurring the lines between contraception and abortion.

It’s an article of faith for the anti-choice movement that emergency contraception is an “abortifacient,” though it has never once been in dispute that it works by preventing pregnancy instead of terminating it. It was clear that anti-choicers were deliberately blurring the difference, because if they could soften up the public to the idea that one could abort a pregnancy before it begins, that opens the door to all sorts of restrictions on contraception. The excuse for this was anti-choice claims that emergency contraception works by killing fertilized eggs before they implant, even though a basic understanding of human biology and the actual scientific evidence made it clear that it works by suppressing ovulation. The excuse anti-choicers would hide behind when pressed on this point — the reason they always gave for why they “get to” lie about this issue — was that the FDA and other medical authorities allowed for the minor possibility that the pill could work this way if the primary mechanism failed, even though there was no evidence it did work that way.

The entire anti-choice case for conflating abortion and contraception was based on those incredibly shaky grounds. It will be interesting to see what new excuse they come up with now that those authorities are revising their guidelines in response to a New York Times article outlining research that makes it clear that emergency contraception does not work after fertilization. Labeling and information from these sources that suggested that the medication might prevent fertilization was never meant to be taken as definitive proof the way anti-choicers eagerly take it, but more as part of a larger tendency of drug labels to include every possible side effect that hasn’t been eliminated, no matter how unlikely. Now the FDA has removed claims that emergency contraception works on fertilized eggs from their website. A.D.A.M. has changed its entry on emergency contraception at Medline Plus, the NIH consumer information website, to make it clear that the only way that emergency contraception works is by suppressing ovulation.

In an ideal world, these kind of distinctions wouldn’t matter that much. A fertilized egg is a single cell, and a woman is an actual person whose needs trump those of an organism whose only function is replicating DNA. In our world, however, conservatives have successfully created a situation where invoking the word “abortion” creates all sorts of anxieties and causes legislators to fall all over themselves creating loopholes in policy so that abortion isn’t treated the same as other forms of health care. Anti-choicers haven’t been nearly as successful in demonizing contraception, though they clearly wish to do so. That’s why they’re so intent on blurring the distinction between abortion and contraception, starting with emergency contraception. It’s all about making contraception as taboo as abortion, laying the groundwork to restrict access to contraception as they have done with abortion.

Redefining contraception — especially female-controlled kinds and even more especially ones that can be used by women after they’ve “sinned” by having sex — as abortion is far too important to the anti-choice movement to expect that they’ll allow this relabeling effort to stop them. Most likely, they’ll do what they’ve done with inconvenient statistics that show that abortion doesn’t cause breast cancer or depression; they’ll just ignore the science and lie like they were getting paid per fib.

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Indeed, initial responses to the New York Times article indicate that lying is the anti-choice back-up plan now that there’s no “maybe” to cling to when asserting that emergency contraception kills fertilized eggs. When confronted with the facts by the New York Times reporter, Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “So far what I see is an unresolved debate and some studies on both sides,” after disingenuously claiming that he’d be relieved if he had to admit that emergency contraception only works by preventing conception, as his church’s stance against contraception hasn’t changed in the past week.

The problem with that statement is that it’s nonsense. As the Times article reported, there aren’t studies on “both sides,” and scientific consensus can safely be said to have been achieved. If Doerflinger really wanted to be relieved, he’d have been relieved five years ago, when researchers found that whether or not Plan B worked depended entirely on whether you took it before or after you ovulated. Women who took it before didn’t get pregnant. Women who took it after they ovulated got pregnant at the same rates as women who didn’t take it at all. The “maybe” that anti-choicers are hinging their anti-emergency contraception argument has basically vanished. Instead of the relief that we were promised that we’d get should we prove that fertilized eggs would survive emergency contraception, denial of the facts has hardened. 

Since contraception is a major issue in this campaign season, we’ll soon learn how married the anti-choice movement and conservatives are to the lie that emergency contraception is “abortion.” So far, conservatives have been trying to strengthen their claim that insurance coverage of contraception violates an employer’s “religious freedom” to try to control his employee’s sex life by tossing the word “abortion” around promiscuously. After all, without that emotion-raising word, it’s a lot easier to see that in fact, they’re attacking a women’s freedom not to have their employers discriminate against them in pay and benefits because of a difference in religious belief. I can’t imagine they’ll give it up, therefore, despite this rather headline-grabbing demonstration of how dishonest they’re being when they try to reclassify contraception as “abortion.” 

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