Are Abortifacients Abortifacient?

Here is an atrocious, obviously biased, and above all badly written piece of dreck from the New York Times.  You should all read it, because, if you can get through the gentle assassination of the English language in the service of Queen Cecile I, it brings up the most important development in pro-life science that pro-lifers aren’t talking about:

Adding to their passionate opposition to the rule that employees of religiously affiliated institutions must receive insurance coverage for birth control, Roman Catholic bishops and some evangelical groups have asserted that it also requires coverage of some forms of abortion.

They contend that methods of contraception including morning-after pills and IUDs can be considered “abortifacients” because, these advocates say, they can act to prevent pregnancy after a man’s sperm has fertilized a woman’s egg.

“We object to the use of drugs and procedures used to take the lives of unborn children,” the Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, said Thursday at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Their reasoning is that life begins the moment an egg is fertilized, and that if a contraceptive has the potential to prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus, it is aborting a life.

To which any sane person with even a tenuous hold on common English language, science, or indeed everyday reality remarks, “Duh.”  Moving right along:

Several scientists and doctors said in interviews that this view [may] not reflect the way the birth control methods actually work. “There’s so much evidence for how these things work prior to fertilization,” said Diana L. Blithe, director of contraceptive development for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “And there’s no evidence that they work beyond fertilization.”

She and other experts said these methods are so effective in preventing fertilization that the chance of an egg and sperm uniting is slim… While several medical Web sites, including some from government agencies, raise the possibility that the morning-after pill could affect implantation, Dr. Blithe and others said it had not been scientifically verified that the drugs work that way.

One morning-after pill, Plan B, contains a synthetic progesterone that blocks ovulation, said Dr. Anita Nelson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. Recent studies have indicated that women who take Plan B after ovulation have a normal chance of becoming pregnant, [suggesting] that Plan B does not prevent their fertilized eggs from implanting, Dr. Nelson said…

[However, i]f fertilization [should] occur, the embryo runs a high risk of not implanting [because of the intervention of the high-dose hormones used in contraception, resulting in embryonic death].

[Ed. Note: I have reluctantly edited the source material in some places where it related actual, objectively verifiable falsehoods.  My changes are in brackets.  The Times also insists on that perpetuating that degenerate figment of poor writing, the "fertilized egg," which, as all clear-minded persons can readily remind you, is an oxymoron.  There are other places in the article where terrible abuses of language and fact occur, but I do not need to quote them, thank God.]

I hate this article, as I believe I have already made clear.  But the basic point is important, and, despite dramatically exaggerating the science so as to more easily make fun of those weird religionists with their crazy science beliefs, the Times still manages to include the emerging scientific consensus underneath all the nonsense: abortifacients might not be abortifacient.

I learned this several years ago, when I helped with a major revision to the Wikipedia article on emergency contraception.  My role in the revision was to delve into the very latest and best research on how EC actually worked, especially whether it was an abortifacient.  Looking back, it seems that the majority of my work is still in place, essentially unchanged.  So go take a look!

Quick history: in the 1970s, science realized that contraceptive pills were thinning the uterine walls to the point where implantation of a living human embryo would be impossible, leading directly to the death of the child in an abortion.  So, if any sperms and eggs made it past the standard contraceptive defenses (ovulatory suppression, spermicide) and managed to meet up in the fallopian tubes and made a baby, that baby would basically be refused admission to the uterine lining by the contraceptive bouncer and evicted from the body — killed.  Since we know that combined oral contraceptive pill (COCP) users frequently end up having babies anyway, it seemed obvious that some babies were getting created, and surely some percentage of them were being killed off at the uterine wall.  This was a very strong hypothesis, and everyone believed it.  Justice John Paul Stevens cited it prominently in his pro-abortion opinion in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services of Missouri.   Frankly, it was good science, and it became a major ethical dilemma for pro-lifers: most of us did not want to be seen as trying to outlaw contraceptives, because we’d look like insane radicals.  At the same time, if contraceptives were actually abortion drugs, obviously we couldn’t stay quiet about them!

The Times, of course, drops all this down the memory hole.  But it’s the Times.  What do you expect?  Reporting?

Good hypothesis though it was, it had yet to be tested, and experimentation is a must in good natural science.  So we started experimenting.

Twenty years later, we have nothing to show for it.  There is absolutely no evidence, in practice, that contraceptive drugs actually kill babies.  Indeed, there’s some positive evidence that they do not kill babies.  (You can go to my Wikipedia article for the citations if you like.)  There continues to be some good reasons to believe that the IUD is abortifacient, but your basic everyday contraceptive pills, and even Plan B, very well might not be.  If we can ever prove this for sure, it would be unalloyed good news for the pro-life movement, above all because it means American moms aren’t unknowingly wiping out their own ten-child families every day.  This would also make it approximately one BLILLION [stet] times easier to pass effective pro-life legal measures, such as the Personhood Mississippi initiative that was brought down in November over precisely these kinds of concerns (also Planned Parenthood’s lies). Pro-lifers should pay attention to this, should catch up on the science, and present their case accordingly.

The fact is, unfortunately, there still isn’t any clarity on the science here, and there’s unlikely to be any clarity for a long time.  Until we do have a verdict one way or the other, it would be ethically negligent (gravely so) to employ contraceptive methods, especially Plan B or the copper-based IUD, which have a modest likelihood of occasionally killing a human being.  But that’s the case we need to start articulating.  We must stop statically repeating thirty-year-old hypotheses as if they are simply canonical fact.

We can also sleep with much lighter hearts, knowing there’s a fairly good chance that the abortion crisis is not quite so bad as we have long imagined.

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