New Focus on the Morning-After Pill Adds Fuel to Abortion Debate

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Packets of Levonelle, a brand of "morning-after pill"

For those who take opposing views in the abortion debate, there has always been a very definitive and comforting battle line: Pro-choice versus pro-life.

But now, thanks to technology, there is a new point of contention — the advent of the so-called "morning-after" pill, or emergency contraception, has introduced a new wrinkle in the battle over abortions. Women can take the hormone-laden pills (essentially a super-dose of regular birth control pills) up to 72 hours after intercourse to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Depending on the stage of a woman's menstrual cycle, the pills will either keep an egg from making itself available to a sperm, or will stop a fertilized egg from implanting itself into the uterus.

It's the second possibility that particularly concerns many pro-life advocates, who argue that life begins at conception, or, technically, the moment of fertilization. Others, however — including some pro-lifers — argue that without implantation, there is no pregnancy. After all, over the course of a lifetime, a woman could naturally expel tens or even hundreds of fertilized eggs that simply didn't latch onto her uterus.

Until now, the morning-after pill, introduced in the States in 1998, hasn't caused too much fuss, unlike the much-discussed RU-486 pill — with which it is sometimes confused — which is a true abortion drug that can be used as far as 60 days into a woman's pregnancy. But there were some disgruntled mutterings when Dr. Thomas Purdon, the new president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, announced Monday that he believes women should be offered advance prescriptions of morning-after pills, which they can keep in their medicine cabinets. At present, the drug is only available by after-the-fact prescription, while in some states, including Washington and California, it is available directly from pharmacists who have agreements with specific physicians. Purdon also said that while the drug offers an "incredible" opportunity to significantly curb the 3 million unwanted pregnancies (and one million abortions) that occur each year in the U.S., he was concerned that many women don't know about it.

For pro-choice advocates, Purdon's recommendations are welcomed; the picture on the pro-life side, however, is a little more fuzzy, and there has not been as much outright opposition to the morning-after pill as there has been about other developments (such as RU-486). The pills, in fact, have sparked a great deal of uncharacteristic reticence from the usually vocal lobbyists at the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC). So much so, that last month, the relatively radical American Life League (ALL)called the NRLC to task for its silence on the morning-after pills, which they believe are tantamount to abortions. "Perhaps one of the greatest weapons used by the pro-abortion lobby, in its efforts to promote morning-after abortion pills, is the fact that a handful of 'pro-life' groups will not specifically oppose it," Judie Brown, president of ALL, has been quoted as saying. The NRLC did not immediately return's phone calls for this story.

Does such a defection, intentional or otherwise, signal a real schism in the pro-life lobby? Probably not — more likely, the issue of morning after pills is simply too young and too ill-defined to have elicited a wholly unified front.

Meanwhile, pro-choicers, who consider the morning-after drug a viable and relatively uncontroversial way to prevent unwanted pregnancies — and the abortions that often follow — are welcoming the potential effect of Purdon's pronouncement. "A lot of women aren't particularly well informed about this option," Elizabeth Cavendish, legal director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League told "Happily, we're seeing a lot of young women taking a much more active role in promoting awareness, which is key."