Science Doesn’t Back Claims That Emergency Contraception Drugs Cause Abortion

You can bank on this: the right’s war on contraception is about to become another front — along with attacks on evolution and evidence on climate change — in the broader war on science.

For years religious-right groups have insisted that pharmacists who oppose abortion should have the right to refuse to dispense emergency contraception drugs — so-called “morning after” pills — on conscience grounds. Those groups contend that the pills result in abortion by preventing a fertilized egg from being implanted in a woman’s uterus. In fact, they have used that argument among their attacks on the Obama administration’s new rule requiring that health insurance plans cover contraception for women. Here, for example, is what a blogger for the right-wing group Texans for Life Coalition says about the new rule:

“(I)n Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s brave new world, you can jaunt on over to the Walgreen’s and have them rustle up an abortion pill for free, on an insurance plan subsidized by your Catholic employer.”

Well, no. The Obama administration’s new rule does not cover drugs, like RU486, that cause abortions. (RU486 blocks a hormone that is essential to maintaining a pregnancy.) Moreover, a new examination by the New York Times finds that scientific evidence doesn’t support the contention that emergency contraception drugs, like Plan B and Ella, cause abortions:

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. It turns out that the politically charged debate over morning-after pills and abortion, a divisive issue in this election year, is probably rooted in outdated or incorrect scientific guesses about how the pills work. Because they block creation of fertilized eggs, they would not meet abortion opponents’ definition of abortion-inducing drugs.

The New York Times piece points out that the Food and Drug Administration had required, during the drug approval process, that labels for “morning after” pills note the possibility that the drugs could prevent implantation of an embryo even though there was no scientific evidence that was the case. The FDA did so over the objections of the makers of Plan B and did not change the requirement even though studies as far back as a decade ago showed that the drug did not prevent implantation. From the article:

After The Times asked about this issue, A.D.A.M., the firm that writes medical entries for the National Institutes of Health Web site, deleted passages suggesting emergency contraceptives could disrupt implantation. The Times, which uses A.D.A.M.’s content on its health Web page, updated its site. The medical editor in chief of the Web site for the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Roger W. Harms, said “we are champing at the bit” to revise the entry if the Food and Drug Administration changes labels or other agencies make official pronouncements

“These medications are there to prevent or delay ovulation,” said Dr. Petra M. Casey, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Mayo. “They don’t act after fertilization.”

The Obama administration’s rule on insurance coverage for birth control isn’t the only battleground over emergency contraception. Efforts in various states to pass so-called “personhood” initiatives that define a fertilized egg as a person could bar access to such drugs. (We expect to see similar efforts when the Texas Legislature meets again in January.)

Of course, right-wing groups are already attacking the science on emergency contraception. The New York Times article reports that anti-abortion activists have criticized two federal agencies for revising fact sheets that note how scientific evidence doesn’t support the contention that emergency contraception drugs prevent implantation:

“Critics said they wondered if scientists and government agencies were debunking an implantation effect because they support abortion rights. Jonathan Imbody, vice president of government relations for the Christian Medical Association, wrote on, that the fact sheets contradict Plan B’s abortion-inducing nature and raise questions about ‘whether ideological considerations are driving these decisions.'”

For anyone who has followed the right’s attacks on evolution, climate change science and the effectiveness of contraception generally, that sure sounds familiar.