Plan B, RU-486 -- same difference, right?

That's what Reuters makes it seem like.


Catherine Price
October 30, 2007 9:15PM (UTC)

Anyone paying close attention to the goings-on at the Vatican might have noticed something strange about two recent pope-related articles from Reuters. The first, titled "Pope Urges Pharmacists to Reject Abortion Pill," quotes the pope as telling a group of Roman Catholic pharmacists that "It is not possible to anaesthetize the conscience ... when it comes to molecules whose aim is to stop an embryo implanting or to cut short someone's life." (He was asking the pharmacists to be "conscientious objectors.") Then the article focuses exclusively on RU-486, otherwise known as the abortion pill.

The second article is called "Pope's 'Morning After Pill' Speech Criticized." In this one, Reuters claims that the pope's speech, while not naming any specific drugs, seemed to make clear references to Plan B -- otherwise known as "the morning after pill." (The pope was apparently also condemning drugs that assist euthanasia, but neither article pays this much attention.)

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So what's the big deal, you ask? The abortion pill, the morning-after pill -- they all end pregnancies, right? Well, no. As many of you no doubt already know, the morning-after pill prevents pregnancy by blocking embryos from implanting in the uterus. RU-486, on the other hand, terminates an already established pregnancy. So in the first article, when the pope criticized drugs "whose aim is to stop an embryo implanting," he could not have been talking about RU-486. And yet for some reason, Reuters devotes the entire article to "the abortion pill" without making a distinction between Plan B and RU-486. In fact, the article doesn't even mention Plan B or, for that matter, refer to RU-486 by name.

(It's possible, by the way, that the pope was referring to RU-486 when he criticized "molecules" that could "cut short someone's life," but since his speech also dealt with the subject of euthanasia, it seems like that particular quote was probably not about the "abortion pill" either.)

Now, from the quotes excerpted by Reuters, it seems as if the pope himself was not terribly specific about what exactly he was talking about. Fine. He's the pope. He wasn't appointed on clarity. But Reuters, on the other hand, has a journalistic responsibility not to conflate two very different drugs. If you've got the pope quoted as talking about how we shouldn't block embryo implantation, and then you spend the whole article talking about the "abortion pill" without any mention whatsoever of Plan B (or an explanation of what the differences are), that is irresponsible. And it plays directly into the hands of those who want the two drugs to be conflated -- which makes this a careless error that's far worse than a misplaced apostrophe. The pope can be vague. A wire service should not.

If you're irritated by this, let Reuters know -- here's a link to its comment page.

Clarification: The "morning-after pill" prevents pregnancy primarily by preventing ovulation or fertilization. Whether or not it inhibits implantation of a fertilized egg is an open question; a 2003 study, for one, says it does not. In other words, as far as we know for sure, and insofar as some maintain that preventing implantation is tantamount to abortion, the "morning-after" and "abortion" pills are really, REALLY different.


Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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