The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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October 5, 2001 Issue
Special Section:
Respect Life Month

Emergency contraceptives can cause abortion

Women need all the facts before they take a pill

By Susan Wills

Are emergency contraceptives (ECs) really contraceptives?

Do they prevent conception, as supporters insist? Are they ineffective if a woman is already pregnant, as they also claim? Or do they always or usually cause abortions, as some pro-life groups say? And are they as safe, easy and effective as the advertising suggests?

Planned Parenthood says ECs could "prevent 1.7 million unintended pregnancies and 800,000 abortions each year." It also says that women who have used ECs "report high levels of satisfaction."

But anyone who has looked at the comments on a "morning-after pill" on-line support message board (www. knows there are many women who strongly contradict the depiction of EC use as easy or uncomplicated.

One writes: "I'm sick. I'm sore. I'm a complete emotional wreck. I'm scared. I'm now terrified at the prospect of having to have sex again."

Another explains: "I feel so many things, all so conflicting, and I have so much fear and self-loathing, I need help. My counselor today said he thinks I may be suffering from pas (post-abortion syndrome) . . . he says I don't have to have had a surgical abortion to feel like I caused that baby to die by my taking those pills. I am so scared and confused. . . . "

The idea of "emergency contraceptives" arose decades ago as a high dose of ordinary oral contraceptive pills. The plan was that women could use these to avert a pregnancy hours or days after unprotected intercourse or after their usual contraceptive had failed.

ECs supress ovulation, alter cervical mucus which slows sperm transport, slow transport of egg or embryo through the fallopian tube, and change the uterine lining making it thin and atrophied, inhibiting implantation of the embryo.

Whether ECs prevent conception or act as an abortifacient depends on when in the woman's fertility cycle intercourse occurs and when ECs are used.

For almost three weeks of the average cycle, ECs will neither prevent conception nor cause an abortion because a woman is infertile.

During the remaining week or so, ECs are capable of both contraceptive and abortifacient action, the former action predominating in the early days of the fertile phase. Unless a woman charts her fertility (an easy thing to do with methods developed for natural family planning), she cannot be certain which action has prevented pregnancy.

Those who promote emergency contraception omit facts and publish inaccuracies and half-truths, depriving women of their right to informed consent.

The foremost claim is that ECs do not cause abortion and have no effect on a pregnancy. To make this claim, they have had to redefine pregnancy as beginning after an embryo has implanted in the uterine lining, and redefine abortion as terminating a pregnancy. Terminating a human being's life prior to successful implantation is not counted.

Women are also misled about unpleasant side effects and health risks of ECs. Promoters of ECs trivialize the physical, emotional and psychological impact from using these drugs, assuming perhaps that any amount of such harm to women is preferable to continuing a pregnancy.

Bur far more troubling is the long list of very serious contraindications and warnings given to doctors. (See, e.g., "Prescribing Information" at The risks include:

• blood clots in the deep veins of the leg -- three to six times greater risk than for non-users -- and increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

• Warnings against using if they have diabetes with blood vessel involvement, severe headaches including migraine, current or past breast cancer, liver tumors or disease, or a known allergy to any component in ECs.

Because it can be difficult to schedule a medical appointment during the 72-hour window in which the initial dose must be taken, promoters of ECs are lobbying the Food and Drug Administration and state legislatures to authorize over-the-counter availability.

Currently only Washington state allows distribution by pharmacists. But a busy pharmacy is no place for a woman to discuss her relevant medical and sexual history -- absolutely essential, given the serious contra-indications of the drugs.

The availability of ECs is not "the nation's best-kept secret" as promoters like to claim. The secret best kept from the American public is that these drugs can cause abortions. Those who believe in the sanctity of human life -- and all who oppose giving potentially dangerous drugs to women with inadequate or extremely misleading information -- can and should oppose the growing use of emergency contraceptives.

(Wills is assistant director for program development, USCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.)

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