A heated debate about emergency contraception confuses the issue.
Earlier this week, the FDA finally got around to agreeing to consider maybe making emergency contraception available over the counter to at least part of the population that needs it (though teenage girls, arguably the population that needs it most, will still be denied OTC access). But just because the morning-after option may become more accessible doesn’t mean the issue is resolved. In fact, by some measures, the struggle has only just begun: According national survey results released on Wednesday, just 20 percent of women in the U.S. are aware that Plan B exists, and less than eight percent understand how the drug works or when it should be used.
In fact, nearly a third of women who had heard of EC believed the drug caused abortion.
How have so many women wound up with incorrect information or no information at all? In part because of pervasive media misinformation, like the infamous segment on “The View” this week. Barbara Walters opened discussion of the issue by calling Plan B safe and effective, but described the drug’s mechanism as preventing a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine wall (when there’s no scientific evidence that the drug discourages implantation, and a major 2005 study concluded that “emergency contraception appears to work by interfering with ovulation, thus preventing fertilization, and not by disrupting events that occur after fertilization”). Co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck argued that life begins at fertilization, saying she feels very strongly that implantation should not be interfered with. Muddying the waters somewhat, Walters countered that EC “also prevents fertilization.” An animated Hasselback answered,
“This prevents also, though, the fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine wall, taking away that environment for that egg to develop, which it would develop, most of the time, into a baby, a child, in this case. Taking that environment away from that life, to me it’s the same as birthing a baby and leaving it on the street.”
Trying for levity, Joy Behar began a hypothetical comic riff about having sex with her husband and using Plan B. Walters intervened, saying “Let’s not say you and Steve, because you could have this child,” as though financially comfortable married people have no justification for family planning. Instead, Walters proposed that skeptics consider a young woman raped by her father, whose life might be ruined by carrying such a pregnancy to term.
At this point, I’m about to gnaw my arm off in frustration. The misleading medical information is the main problem here. But I have to cringe when advocates start in on who deserves to terminate a pregnancy; it always seems to be the tragically soiled innocents who are granted reproductive choice, and not the rest of us sinners. Of course, if only some women could have access to emergency contraception, I would vehemently advocate for rape and incest survivors to get first dibs. But there isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a shortage! Hasselbeck answered Walters’s rape-victim hypothetical by saying the campaign to make EC available over the counter proves people don’t want it to be used only in exceptional cases, and while I question her intuitive knowledge of the pharmacy-going habits of assault survivors, she’s basically right. Emergency contraception isn’t just for use in exceptional cases of rape and incest. It is a contraceptive for use in emergencies, and should be available as a backstop for anyone whose primary method of birth control fails.
Of course, all the hosts made up by the end of “The View,” but the fertilization/implantation confusion was never cleared up. Which is just criminal, considering how many women are manifestly in need of accurate information on the subject. Information like: Emergency contraception is not abortion! By preventing unplanned pregnancies before they begin, Plan B prevents abortions. By rights it should be the common ground in the pro-choice/pro-life debate — and if anti-choice folks were actually as concerned with preventing abortion as they were with cracking down on sexuality, it would be. We need one of those “Tell Someone” campaigns, like the one Merck is (admirably if not not entirely altruistically) sponsoring for HPV awareness. Broadsheet readers, go forth and tell someone about emergency contraception! If the person you inform happens to be Barbara Walters, so much the better.
Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager. More Page Rockwell.
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