It’s time, once and for all, to clear up the confusion about Plan B on 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 credit emergency contraception with preventing 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 called levonorgestrel—sold under the brand names Plan B and 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. Warning: As of November 2013, research suggests that this kind of EC is ineffective for women weighing over 165 pounds.
- 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. If inserted within five days of unprotected sex, a copper IUD is 99% effective in preventing pregnancy, and it then provides top tier hormone-free contraception for up to twelve years. For a woman who is worried about the risk of an unwanted pregnancy, this is the most certain option.
All of these options have well established safety records in the U.S., Canada and Europe with no effect on subsequent fertility or health of later pregnancies or offspring. They do not cause weight gain and in fact may help you avoid it. The progestin in Plan B is the same as that in the Mirena IUD, which has been used by European women for fifteen years continuously with normal fertility rates after. Similarly, the copper IUD track record has been established over decades, with normal rates of conception and healthy pregnancy after years of use. In some countries a formulation similar to Plan B has been marketed simply as a “post coital contraceptive” for women who have sex rarely.
Of these three, the copper IUD 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 averts more fertilized egg deaths than it causes. Both kinds of EC pills function by stopping or delaying ovulation. There has been speculation about whether they might also block sperm or implantation, but research has failed to find evidence of either of these. None of them aborts an implanted embryo. That requires a different medication.
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 emergency birth control pills abort teeny babies and that they are dangerous? Because in the minds of some true believers, when you’re on a mission from God the end justifies the means. That is why religious belief has wildly inconsistent effects on truth seeking and truth telling. Chris Rhodda’s book, Liars for Jesus, focuses on the way that some Christian fundamentalists are rewriting history to justify theocracy. Katherine Stewart’s book, The Good News Club, sheds light on tricks that 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 we 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.
Here is why conservative Christians keep insisting 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 is that Plan B and other emergency contraceptives are not abortifacients but are in fact genuine contraceptives. This is an inconvenient truth for 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.
Read more about contraception by this author:
Birth Control and Weight Gain–Is There a Relationship?
Picture a Technology Revolution. In Contraception. It’s Here!
Dramatic Drop In Teen Pregnancy Really a Technology Tipping Point
Pamper, Pamper, Pamper – Plus 9 Other Tips for Falling in Love With Your IUD
A Brief History of Your Period and Why You Don’t Have to Have It
Hey Ladies! Thinking About Ditching Your Period? A Doctor Answers 12 Puzzling and Hopeful Questions
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.