The Morning-After Pill Without a Note From Your Doctor?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Imagine this: In the middle of sex, your husband/boyfriend's condom breaks. Or your diaphragm gets dislodged. You spend the rest of the night in a state of panic; you know, somehow, that you're going to get pregnant, and you're not ready, financially or psychologically, to have a baby. So the next day you cancel your meetings and head to your doctor's office, where you wait hours for a cursory appointment — after which you're handed a prescription for the morning-after pill. At the local drugstore, the sole pharmacist on duty informs you that he is morally opposed to filling your prescription. The only other pharmacy in town is closed for renovations, and if you don't get the pill soon you might just have to go through the pain and expense of an abortion.

Now imagine the Food and Drug Administration has approved the morning-after pill, or Plan B, for nonprescription distribution: You can walk into any pharmacy, pick up the pill and take it right up to the counter. It's a scenario you might not have to imagine for long if pro-choice groups and the American Medical Association have their way. Monday, the FDA, now under the supervision of pro-life Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, was asked to consider the morning-after pill for over-the-counter status. Advocates claim the approval would change the face of reproductive health services by both granting women more autonomy and decreasing the number of abortions.

Insurance policy against pregnancy

Plan B, or the morning-after pill, is not the same as the "abortion pill," RU-486, which is used to terminate an existing pregnancy without surgical intervention. The morning-after pill is essentially a combination of a certain type of birth-control pills that proponents say interrupts the chain of events leading up to a pregnancy. It works only within a very brief time frame following unprotected sex or sexual assaults, but provides women with a safe, virtually side effect–free way to insure against pregnancy. In the unlikely event that the pill fails and a pregnancy occurs anyway, advocates point out, the drug will not harm the developing fetus. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that taking the pill is tantamount to "playing Russian roulette with the potential that a life begins at conception," as Judie Brown of the American Life League told CNN Monday.

And therein lies the theoretical debate at the center of the morning-after pill controversy. When does life begin? When the egg and sperm make contact, as many pro-life groups believe? Or when a fertilized egg is implanted in the uterus? Or some time after that?

Could Plan B serve both sides of the abortion debate?

As the FDA deliberates, the arguments have only just begun. James Trussell, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University and a board member of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, sees no reason why the FDA approval shouldn't go through without a hitch. "There won't be any resistance that I'm aware of — there certainly shouldn't be anything other than the standard FDA approval procedures." Trussell's sanguinity, of course, is rooted in a belief that the morning-after pill serves both sides of the abortion debate. "This pill has the potential to significantly reduce the number of abortions, and that should represent adequate common ground for everyone."

The flaw in that "let's just all get along" logic is that as far as pro-life groups are concerned, the morning-after pill is just another form of abortion, as abhorrent as a surgical procedure. Asked to comment on the pill's pending appearance before the FDA, The National Right to Life Committee responded with a prepared statement: "Once fertilization has occurred, a new human life has begun and NRLC is opposed to destroying that new human life."

To date, the NRLC and other pro-life groups have kept a relatively low profile as the debate over granting the morning-after pill OTC status has heated up. That could change quickly, although some reports indicate the pro-life movement's confidence is boosted considerably by the presence of Secretary Tommy Thompson — and by his power to order studies designed to stall the approval of troubling drugs.