Science Does Not Support Claims That Contraceptives Are ‘Abortion-Inducing’

By | September 8, 2018

During his Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Thursday, Judge Brett Kavanaugh referred to some forms of birth control as “abortion-inducing drugs.” The phrase is a characterization that some anti-abortion religious groups use, but it is not supported by scientific evidence.

Judge Kavanaugh used the phrase while answering questions by Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, about a 2015 dissent he wrote in a case brought by a Catholic organization over a requirement in the federal health care law that employers include contraception coverage in employee health plans. The group, Priests for Life, argued that the provision violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, despite an exception allowing employers with religious objections to arrange for a separate insurance company to provide contraceptive coverage.

“They said filling out the form would make them complicit in the provision of the abortion-inducing drugs that they were, as a religious matter, objecting to,” Judge Kavanaugh testified, describing the group’s position.

It was not clear exactly which methods Judge Kavanaugh was referring to when he used the phrase “abortion-inducing drugs.”

Most common types of contraception — birth control pills, condoms, hormonal intrauterine devices and implants — prevent conception by keeping eggs from becoming fertilized.

The description “abortion-inducing” is most often used by anti-abortion religious groups to characterize methods they believe can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. These groups typically say that such methods are morning-after pills and copper intrauterine devices.

There are two main reasons this belief does not comport with scientific evidence. First, the medical definition of pregnancy is that it begins after a fertilized egg is implanted in the uterus, not before. That is because many, probably most, fertilized eggs naturally fail to implant in the uterus on their own.

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Second, a growing body of research strongly indicates that morning-after pills, such as Plan B and Ella, do not prevent implantation. Instead, the pills, if taken up to five days after unprotected sex, work to stop fertilization from occurring. They do this by delaying ovulation, the release of eggs from the ovaries that occurs before eggs are fertilized, or by thickening cervical mucus so that sperm have trouble swimming and reaching the egg to fertilize it.

A New York Times investigation of the science behind morning-after pills in 2012 prompted the National Institutes of Health website to delete passages suggesting emergency contraceptive pills could disrupt implantation. A spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration said at the time that “emerging data” suggested that morning-after pills do not inhibit implantation.

The other method of emergency contraception, the copper IUD, does appear to be able to block implantation of a fertilized egg, scientists say. (It is different from the more popular hormonal IUDs, such as the common brand Mirena, which are extremely effective at preventing fertilization in the first place and have no effect on implantation.)

The copper IUD is also highly effective at preventing fertilization and, unlike hormonal IUDs, can do so even if inserted within five days after unprotected sex. In the small number of cases where the copper IUD does not prevent fertilization, scientists say it might be able to disrupt the process by which the fertilized egg would implant in the uterus.

Because it has to be inserted by a health provider within a few days after unprotected sex, however, the copper IUD is a much less common method of emergency contraception than morning-after pills.

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