The Pill That Hides Abortions From the Statisticians

The widespread use of the morning-after pill has opened a new front in the fight to defend life: hidden abortions.

(photo: Image credit: “WiLPrZ”, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Recently we received some good news: abortion rates have fallen to the lowest level since before Roe v. Wade. USA Today reported that “the latest annual report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, incorporating data from 47 states, said the abortion rate for 2013 was 12.5 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 years. That is down 5 percent from 2012, and is half the rate of 25 recorded in 1980.” The CDC began recording the number of abortions in 1969.

I would argue, however, that after the introduction of the over-the-counter morning-after pill (or “emergency contraception”), it is now more difficult, or even impossible, to track the number of abortions.

There is a debate on whether the morning-after pill causes abortion, but this is because abortion is defined by many as the termination of pregnancy after implantation. For instance, here is how the CDC defines abortion: “For the purpose of surveillance, a legal induced abortion is defined as an intervention performed by a licensed clinician (e.g., a physician, nurse-midwife, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant) that is intended to terminate an ongoing pregnancy.” Therefore, the prevention of implantation would not constitute a pregnancy according to the CDC.

Many groups, therefore, claim that the morning-after pill does not cause abortions. For example, the Office of Population Research at Princeton relates that “emergency contraceptive pills work before pregnancy begins. According to leading medical authorities – such as the National Institutes of Health and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists – pregnancy begins when the fertilized egg implants in the lining of a woman's uterus. Implantation begins five to seven days after sperm fertilizes the egg, and the process is completed several days later. Emergency contraception will not work if a woman is already pregnant.”

However, the morning after pill clearly can prevent implantation. Here is the description of how Plan B (one brand of the morning-after pill) works on its website:

Plan B One-Step® is one tablet that contains levonorgestrel, a hormone that has been used in many birth control pills for several decades. Plan B One-Step® contains a higher dose of levonorgestrel than birth control pills, but works in a similar way to help prevent pregnancy.

It works mainly by:

  • Stopping the release of an egg from the ovary

It is possible that Plan B One-Step® may also work by:

  • Preventing fertilization of an egg (the uniting of sperm with the egg)
  • Preventing attachment (implantation) to the uterus (womb)

Even though medically-induced abortions have reached the lowest point in over forty years, there are now millions of women using the morning after pill. USA Today reported statistics for the same year referenced above (2013):

As many as 11% of U.S. women ages 15-44 who have ever had sexual intercourse have used a "morning after" pill at least once, according to the first federal report on emergency contraception, out Thursday.

That's 5.8 million women — and half say they used it because they feared their birth control method may have failed. The rest say they had unprotected sex.

Not every use, of course, of the morning after pill would result in the prevention of implantation (which rightly should be considered an abortion). It is, therefore, impossible to estimate the actual number of abortions that occur in the United States.

When the morning after pill was legalized in Italy in 2000, the Pontifical Academy of Life issued a statement clarifying that it is indeed an abortifacient:

It is clear, therefore, that the proven "anti-implantation" action of the morning-after pill is really nothing other than a chemically induced abortion. It is neither intellectually consistent nor scientifically justifiable to say that we are not dealing with the same thing.

Moreover, it seems sufficiently clear that those who ask for or offer this pill are seeking the direct termination of a possible pregnancy already in progress, just as in the case of abortion. Pregnancy, in fact, begins with fertilization and not with the implantation of the blastocyst in the uterine wall, which is what is being implicitly suggested.

Consequently, from the ethical standpoint the same absolute unlawfulness of abortifacient procedures also applies to distributing, prescribing and taking the morning-after pill. All who, whether sharing the intention or not, directly co-operate with this procedure are also morally responsible for it.

In the end, since these procedures are becoming more widespread, we strongly urge everyone who works in this sector to make a firm objection of moral conscience, which will bear courageous and practical witness to the inalienable value of human life, especially in view of the new hidden forms of aggression against the weakest and most defenceless individuals, as is the case with a human embryo.

The widespread use of the morning-after pill has opened a new front in the fight to defend life: hidden abortions. We have to continue educating people on how both the morning after pill and the contraceptive pill more broadly can lead to the destruction of innocent life by preventing implantation. Although it is good news that medically-induced abortions have fallen, we have to be aware that the grocery store and pharmacy are now sites for abortion access. We are making progress in the fight for life, but we cannot slacken our efforts or prayers in light of some good news. 

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