Commentary Media

New York Times Publishes Discredited Arguments About Emergency Contraception

Jodi Jacobson

The Times seems to have gone out of its way to publish a commentary that the paper's own reporting shows is absolutely false on all counts. This is irresponsible media at its worst.

Last week, CVS Caremark, the 7,600-store pharmacy chain, announced it would stop selling tobacco products. CVS took this step in large part because it wants to become more of a health-care provider, and the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products made for some “awkward conversations” with doctors and hospitals, according to various reports. By adding more in-store clinics, CVS may increase access to preventive screening and management of chronic illnesses, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, to many people in need.

In response, the New York Times asked four individuals to write short pieces on “other unhealthy products CVS should stop selling.” And for some reason, they gave one of those four spots to Donna J. Harrison, executive director of the Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who wrote a deeply flawed piece entitled “Dangers of Emergency Contraceptives.” The piece called for—you guessed it—CVS to abandon sales of both Plan B One-Step over the counter and ella by prescription.

It’s a mystery why the Times asked Harrison to write this piece, since it is composed of three outright false claims, all of which have been previously debunked by the New York Times itself.

First, Harrison argues that “the over-the-counter availability of Plan B, and the prescription distribution of Ella, are … incompatible with health care provision.”

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Contraception is primary health care, so contrary to Harrison’s assertion, increased access to emergency contraception (EC) is a critical public health intervention. Whether it is intended or unintended, any pregnancy carries far more risk than the use of hormonal contraception; what would be “incompatible with health care provision” would be to force a woman to undergo the risks of an unwanted pregnancy when it could be prevented through access to EC.

As the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) states, the efficacy of EC depends on taking the correct doses within a specified window of time (from 24 to 120 hours) after unprotected intercourse, and the sooner the better. Making it available over-the-counter means it is more accessible to more women who may need it when they need it. And it is safe. A large body of evidence not only underscores the safety and the efficacy of Plan B (from age 11 and up), but fully supports making it available over the counter; ella, which still requires a prescription, is also safe. The New York Times reported on this safety data several times, including in this piece from June 2013. The same month, those points were reiterated on the Timesown editorial page. It seems whomever at the Times invited Harrison to recycle old, discredited, and dangerous arguments failed to read the paper itself.

Harrison further argues that over-the-counter access to EC “isolates the most at-risk women (teenagers and those in unstable relationships) from getting the medical care they need to diagnose sexually transmitted diseases and access appropriate contraceptive counseling.”

This is troubling on several fronts. As noted above, EC has been found unequivocally to be safe and must be taken within a specific period of time for greatest efficacy. Therefore, access is critical. Moreover, studies reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration in its decision to make Plan B One-Step available over the counter have confirmed that young woman ages 11 and older are fully capable of understanding the directions for use. Anyone seeking out emergency contraception has already had unprotected sex, and there is no rolling back the clock. Given the potential real risks, never mind life-changing circumstances, of an unintended pregnancy, denying women access to EC over the counter is like saying you should not use a tourniquet to staunch bleeding on an open wound before you get to a hospital.

Harrison’s concerns about young women getting access to testing and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and contraceptive counseling also ring quite hollow from a purely political perspective. The anti-choice movement has done everything in its power to undermine access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education, to eliminate funding for the very clinics that provide STD counseling and treatment, and to deny young women access to contraceptive counseling and supplies, not to mention access to safe abortion care. The real agenda here is to leave women with no option but to risk pregnancy and carry to term.

Finally, Harrison states, “[I]n certain situations, emergency contraception may act by blocking a newly conceived embryo from implanting, rather than by preventing fertilization.”

The claim that EC acts as an abortifacient has now been completely debunked by solid scientific evidence.

As the Food and Drug Administration notes:

The product contains higher levels of a hormone found in some types of daily use oral hormonal contraceptive pills and works in a similar way to these contraceptive pills by stopping ovulation and therefore preventing pregnancy. [Emphasis added.] Plan B One-Step will not stop a pregnancy when a woman is already pregnant and there is no medical evidence that the product will harm a developing fetus.

The Times reported on these very findings:

But an examination by The New York Times has found that the federally approved labels and medical Web sites do not reflect what the science shows. Studies have not established that emergency contraceptive pills prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the womb, leading scientists say. Rather, the pills delay ovulation, the release of eggs from ovaries that occurs before eggs are fertilized, and some pills also thicken cervical mucus so sperm have trouble swimming.

The Times, therefore, seems to have gone out of its way to publish a commentary that the paper’s own reporting shows is absolutely false on all counts.

This is irresponsible media at its worst. For some reason, mainstream media organizations continue to believe they need to give air time to members of the anti-choice movement even when its assertions are demonstrably false, though it is unclear why. What is clear is that to do so is irresponsible when the information published is full of gross distortions and outright lies, and when public health is at great risk.

I would love to know to what internal standards of quality and factual accuracy the Times holds itself, because those standards are not evident in pieces that spread falsehoods that could materially and adversely affect real lives.

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