It’s time, once and for all, to clear up the confusion about Plan B on progressive message boards, Facebook pages, forums and comment threads. Tweet this: Plan B doesn’t cause abortion. It stops or delays ovulation. No egg, no fertilization, no pregnancy – no abortion. It’s that simple.
In reality, Plan B prevents abortions because it reduces the fundamental cause of abortions—unwanted pregnancy. About 40% of unintended pregnancies end in abortion. When used within a 72 hour window after unprotected sex or contraceptive failure, Plan B prevents 70% of the accidental pregnancies that would have occurred. One U.S. study estimated that emergency contraception prevented 51,000 abortions in a single year. Since half of fertilized eggs spontaneously abort under normal circumstances, those who think fertilized eggs are persons should also credit emergency contraception with preventing at minimum an additional 64,000 fertilized-egg suicides in that same year.
If your friends want more than a tweet worth of accurate information, there are three kinds of emergency contraception (EC) widely available in the United States:
- Pills that contain a progestin, levonorgestrel—sold as Plan B or under the trade name Next Choice. Plan B or Next Choice should be taken as soon as possible and within 72 hours of unprotected sex and is 70% effective in preventing pregnancy.
- Pills that contain ulipristal acitate –sold under the brand name Ella. Ella has a longer window of effectiveness and can prevent ovulation if taken within five days after unprotected sex. It is 85% effective in reducing pregnancy.
- A copper IUD sold under the name Paragard. Inserted within five days of unprotected sex, a copper IUD is 99% effective in preventing pregnancy, and it then provides ongoing hormone-free contraception.
Of these three, the copper T may interfere with implantation of a fertilized egg, should one exist. However, its primary mechanism of action is to reduce sperm motility, which means it probably averts more fertilized egg deaths than it causes. Both kinds of EC pills function by stopping or delaying ovulation. Although there has been speculation about whether they might also block sperm or implantation, research has failed to find evidence of either of these.
To quote the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals:
Inhibiting ovulation may be the only mechanism of action for levonorgestrel-only ECPs [emergency contraceptive pills]. Recent studies have found no effect on the endometrium. In one study, levonorgestrel 1.5 mg had no effect on the quality of cervical mucus or on the penetration of spermatozoa in the uterine cavity. Animal studies demonstrated that levonorgestrel administered in doses that inhibited ovulation had no postfertilization effect that impaired fertility. . . . This question of postfertilization effect may never be answered unequivocally because no test exists for fertilization; however, the best available evidence indicates that levonorgestrel does not interfere with any postfertilization events.
So why does the Religious Right keep telling us that post-coital contraceptives function by aborting teeny babies? Because in the minds of many true believers, when you’re on a mission from God the end justifies the means. That’s one reason religious belief has such inconsistent moral consequences, including wildly inconsistent effects on truth seeking and truth telling. Chris Rhodda’s book, Liars for Jesus, focuses primarily on the way that Christian fundamentalists are rewriting history to justify theocracy. Katherine Stewart’s book, The Good News Club, sheds light on the deceptions fundamentalists use to woo grade school children for conversion. A NARAL investigation exposed a host of deceptions that are the stock in trade of Crisis Pregnancy Centers including the falsehood that abortions causing breast cancer. Different lies for different ends.
Of course, the term “lie” implies that the perpetrators know what is real and are intent that others should not. That is probably true of some Religious Right leaders. But psychological research shows that we all are best at deceiving others when we deceive ourselves. Consequently humans have a vast capacity for self-deception when they are motivated to believe one thing or another. Some religious right activists may know that they are spreading falsehoods. Many more, though, are simply indifferent to the truth value of their arguments or are engaged in “motivated belief” – filtering evidence to convince themselves that whatever serves their ends is true.
If it wasn’t clear two weeks ago, it should be clear now why conservative Christians have been so insistent that Plan B is an abortifacient, despite all evidence to the contrary. The end they are after isn’t fewer abortions – it’s less sex. Or, at least, less sex that fails their definition of God’s will. In the words of Rick Santorum: “Contraception is not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. Sex is supposed to be within marriage. It’s supposed to be for purposes that are yes, conjugal but also procreative.”
The reality that Plan B and other emergency contraceptives are not abortifacients but are in fact genuine contraceptives is an inconvenient truth for Mr. Santorum and the Religious Right. That is because, however much ambivalence there may be in this country about abortion, very few Americans share their aversion to effective contraception — or having an effective back up when Plan A fails.