Recently, I was involved in a discussion about whether birth control pills cause abortion.
I am NOT a fan of birth control pills and other hormonal contraception, and it’s not just because the Pope says that “the Pill is a no-no”. K used to take them and they made her weepy and tanked her libido, which was no fun for either of us. I understand that some women do need them as medicine, however, normal fertility is not a disease. Treating it as one causes all sorts of physical, psychological, relational, and social problems.
Now, the “technical answer” about whether birth control pills act after conception is that it is theoretically possible, but unlikely and unproven. Combined Oral Contraceptive Pills work in four ways:
- Stop ovulation by suppressing ovarian activity.
- Stop fertilization by thickening cervical mucus.
- Reduce the likelihood of implantation by making the uterine lining inhospitible to the embryo.
- Making women depressed while reducing their libido and sexual responsiveness, leaving fewer opportunities for conception. (But for some reason the pharmaceutical companies don’t advertise this one.)
Standing alone, mechanism #3 would be abortifacient, however, there is some question about whether this is ever an issue. Specifically, if #1 and #2 (and #4) fail, will #3 fail with them? Even if the endometrium is impacted, there are other things that could possibly go wrong and prevent fertilization when a woman is taking a dose of artificial hormones that isn’t quite high enough to work as intended.
Whatever exactly happens when the Pill doesn’t quite work, studies show that combined oral contraceptive pills are very effective at stopping ovulation and preventing sperm from entering the uterus so that any other mechanism of action rarely, if ever, comes into play. If these two mechanisms fail, the studies show that there is a significant chance that pregnancy will result.
But there is a possibility that the Pill has an effect on early pregnancy, even though it appears to be a small one. There are two different ways to describe this possibility:
- Birth control pills may increase the risk of early miscarriage.
- Birth control pills can cause an early abortion.
Blogger Rae Jericho at No Wealth But Life points out that for any other medication, the first description would be used and that use of the second description is “grossly inappropriate” to describe what is happening. It is especially inappropriate to use the second description when birth control pills are used to treat medical conditions. Even the Pope is OK with that. (En Español)
So why do people opposed birth control pills insist that they cause abortions? Why choose the second possibility?
First, I think that many people aren’t completely aware of exactly how the pill works. They may read the package insert, see the third mechanism, assume that all three mechanisms are equal, and don’t bother to look any further. Any medication taken with the purpose of avoiding pregnancy that ends a pregnancy after conception is, by definition, an abortifacient. Pretty simple, right?
Simple, yes, but overly so. To not understand how a drug works is scientific sloppiness. While most people don’t even read the package insert, much less the detailed studies, those who are promoting an unconventional and counter-cultural method of family planning with a (largely undeserved) bad reputation cannot afford to be sloppy about the science.
But I see something a bit more troubling. The second wording, linking birth control pills to abortion is more emotionally charged than simply linking them to early miscarriage.
According to a recent Gallup poll, a majority of Americans consider abortion to be morally wrong, while the overwhelming majority of Americans, including 82% of self-identified Catholics, have no problem with contraception. The moral case against abortion is bumper-sticker simple: Thou Shalt Not Kill. The moral case against contraception and sterilization is a bit more complex, harder to understand, and easier to disagree with.
So instead of taking on the difficult case of explaining the problems of birth control pills to a largely unreceptive audience, (especially when there is so much marketing behind promoting the Pill as a solution to all woman’s problems) some people think it’s OK to take a short-cut by putting an undue emphasis on possible post-conception effects.
I understand that these people mean well. They want to spare couples the negative consequences of hormonal contraception and show them a better way.
But is this not the very “ends justify the means”, manipulative, and dishonest behavior that is contrary to basic Christian morality?
Moral failings have consequences, no matter the good intent. And the consequences for sloppiness, dishonesty, and manipulation is that these erode trust.
Sexuality and family planning are extremely sensitive subjects. Especially family planning methods based on self-knowledge and self-control. When people struggle in these area, they must be able to trust those who are there to help them. If trust has been eroded by dishonesty, they will feel betrayed. And VERY angry.
We’ve been there and we know that feeling.
Furthermore, such emotionally charged language polarizes the discussion. It makes others closed to your ideas, even when beneficial to them and presented by others.
But another consequence of dishonesty is how it impacts the person who engages in the dishonesty. Sin not only harms others, it degrades ourselves. Or as Rae writes:
This abuse of language is dishonest, and it hurts not only those with whom we seek to communicate, but our very selves. When we misuse language and select terms based on what we wish to prove rather than appropriateness for describing a particular situation, we end up shaping our own thinking. Eventually we lose the ability to logically consider facts because we have skewed our minds with twisted words.
Dishonesty erodes our ability to think and our ability to love. Without our minds and our hearts, we lose others . . . and ourselves.