Morning-After Pills Don't Actually Keep Fertilized Eggs From Implanting

By Veronique Greenwood | June 6, 2012 11:31 am

Even when drugs are approved by the FDA, it may not be entirely clear how they work, just that they do. And sometimes, the FDA label describing how they work is actually wrong, as is the case with the emergency contraceptive pill Plan B.

The pill and others like it, which are to be taken as a last-ditch birth control effort after unprotected sex, deliver a one-time dose of a hormone that prevents pregnancy. Because the label suggests that the pill may prevent pregnancy by keeping a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus, which falls under some definitions of abortion, Plan B and other emergency contraceptives have popped up in political debate, with Mitt Romney calling them “abortive pills” and other Republican politicians making similar statements. The New York Times investigated the claim on the label, however, and found that it had been placed there by the FDA despite the fact that there was no evidence that the drug did so. Citing confidentially, the FDA will not say why.

Plan B was approved by the FDA in 1999. In the last 13 years, research into Plan B’s mechanism has advanced, and scientists are now able to say with some certainty that the drug works by delaying ovulation, keeping the egg and the sperm from being in the same place at the same time, so the egg is never fertilized. Women who take Plan B after they’ve ovulated still get pregnant. And in lab tests using cultured cells, the drug does not keep a fertilized egg from attaching to a layer of uterine cells.

Government agencies and medical sites that update their information to reflect the most recent research, though, are being attacked by abortion opponents. More scientific clarity, it seems, does not always resolve conflict.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Kaviani

    It should comes as no surprise that abortion opponents are not concerned with facts or science – the simple notion of female biological sovereignty is intolerable to them in any form. It is a dogmatic issue poorly packaged in a scientific straw man.

    SHame on the FDA, regardless. But I have a list of complaints w/those bozos.

  • scribbler

    How can anyone take you seriously when you engage in the behavior you condemn in others?

    Not rhetorical… ;-)

  • Vanessa

    Quite honestly I feel that the morning after pill is a fantastic thing. I have taught both of my teenaged boys that it exists, and how to go about getting it. So called “Pro Life” people are so often spouting things that are simply not true. I find it frightening that this faction of the population still has so much pull over the rights of women. Deciding what I will and will not do with my uterus is one of those rights.

  • Chris

    The fact that this story is “news” shows that it is not common knowledge. It is unlikely that supporters of this particular Morning After Pill have any more detailed knowledge about this than those who oppose its use.

    I find that abortion opponents are MORE usually concerned with facts and science–if not in general, at least when it comes to this issue. That is because their claims that the fetus is a separate life are actually scientifically verifiable–even if they are unfashionable. You can call it “biological sovereignty,” and perhaps it is, but it is also, certainly, killing a baby in utero. If women ought to be able to have the right to take the life of a child before it is “independent,” that is another matter, but one that concerns ethics, not science. To help alleviate your own prejudice, it might be worthwhile to ask which of the two sides are calling for MORE light to be shed on what exactly occurs during the process of abortion.

  • Hidden One

    Government agencies are not exactly reliable, so I can understand why the government has been attacked by abortion opponents on this one. (For that matter, even the New York Times isn’t perfect!)

  • qraal

    Why should Truth ever get in the way of Truthiness?

    The opponents tell us… ‘ “Morning After Pills” allow guilt free casual sex… which we ALL know is wrong and NOT the way God planned it. Never mind all the prostitutes in the Bible… God doesn’t want us having casual sex… ‘

    Like Plan B isn’t used by women in committed relationships? I’d hazard most of its users are probably married, probably mothers and probably not doing taking the Pill for “convenience sake” as the opponents of female self-determination would have it.

    Mammalian mothers have many ways of regulating their fertility – as I discovered when my supposedly *male* cat spontaneously aborted her first litter. Maybe, if we hold life to be sacred, we should make *non-abortive* means of doing so easier to access and use?

  • floodmouse

    “Women who take Plan B after they’ve ovulated still get pregnant. ” – So, what is the latest research on “Plan C” to keep this from happening? Abortion is ugly and traumatic for everyone; pills are preferable.

    Regarding the problem with the anti-abortion movement, I don’t think anti-abortion advocates are basing their actions on dogma. Dogma is intellectual, and I don’t believe they’re thinking that clearly. I think instead that anti-abortionism is 90% a gut-level emotional response. All mammalian species have a strong ingrained instinct to protect babies. If we didn’t, we’d be extinct. However, regarding a fertilized egg as a full-fledged baby is absurd – it is a severe overextension of the protective instinct, kind of like an emotional autoimmune disorder. The immune system is a mechanism designed to protect the species, but it sometimes goes haywire due to understimulation, and starts producing extreme inflammation in response to minor threats. When that happens, the immune system becomes more dangerous than the organisms it is trying to protect us against. Same thing with anti-abortion. In a society experiencing a lot of wars, famine, droughts, and other severe weather conditions, people who have a strong protective instinct can find plenty to do protecting the babies that have already been born. They can exercise their heroic instincts and feel important. However, our society is not currently like that. In a society where the most strenuous activity most people do is walking to their cars, and the best opportunity they have to protect their kids is to attend a parent-teacher meeting, some people just grasp at any old political cause to make them feel like they’re doing something needful and important. In my opinion, these people ought to be redirected to feeding all the hungry kids that have already been born. Show the anti-abortionists lots of videos of hungry kids, instead of ultrasound pictures of fetuses.

  • floodmouse

    It just occurred to me that I ought to leave an addendum to my previous post. My theory that anti-abortionists are mostly just people with an overgrown protective instinct is based on personal experience. My aunt was an anti-abortionist. She was one of the nicest people on the face of the planet. She had five kids of her own, and wanted to feed everybody else’s kids. She was an artist, but she gave up a career in painting to have a family, even though her husband didn’t have any money to speak of. They actually spent money on a fertility doctor because she didn’t get pregnant right away. She just got really upset at the idea of dead babies. Intellectual reasoning doesn’t really work with people who are reacting to gut-level emotions. I think she was smart enough to understand the issues, but she just had very strong feelings. Emotional people respond better to an opportunity for action than to any kind of reasoned debate. You might have noticed how trying to reason with emotional people often leads to arguments, or even physical battle. ;)

  • dcwarrior

    3 + 4 – yes, and they also feel that killing a baby (in their view) for convenience (i.e., a continuation of a better life for the woman) is horrid and unjust. So if you look at floodmouse’s relative’s point of view, abortion to her means a woman has something she wants very dearly and is throwing it away for what she considers trivial reasons.

    You don’t have to agree but the pro-choice people should at least make an effort to understand.

  • James

    @dewarrior That is a huge assumption that it is a better life for the woman to not have a child. Children are a blessing and all children should be treated as such.

  • ElPico

    @James
    My daughters were and are the most delightful people I have ever known. I am very grateful that I have them in my life. They have chosen not to have any children of their own, although they enjoy babies and children and are respectful and kind with them. I never complain about not having grandchildren even though I am enthralled by babies, because I respect their choices. And that is the point. It is a huge assumption that everyone regards having children as a blessing.

    If the FDA’s wording on the label was influenced by a moral or political agenda, or simply the belief that all children are a blessing, that is wrong. We depend on the FDA for fact-based assessments of medical treatments, so that we can make informed decisions for ourselves.

  • Judi

    Babies conceived as a result of rape are not a blessing but a curse to the woman who was raped, in most cases. Abortion is no one’s preferred choice, but it is essential for all women to have choices concerning their bodies and their health. I had a choice, twice and my choice was to go ahead with the pregnancy even though the timing was terrible and we couldn’t afford either child. But often that is the choice a woman will make to continue to pregnancy, far be it from me to determine someone else’s choices. It is between a woman and her conscience or God. Not for government that is trying to be small and allowing people freedoms. It isn’t anyone else’s business.

    If every pregnancy went to full term the world would soon be full of unwanted people, children and babies and there would be many more people for the government to support who could not support themselves. For there are many pregnancies that end due to the fact that the fetus is damaged. This is the natural way of things, not all fetuses can survive.

  • Superchkn

    @dcwarrior – I think part of the difficulty comes from the hard ethical questions and where different people come at that. Starting with the most obvious, what sets humans apart for special treatment versus other forms of life? As an atheist, my answer to that question is going to be strikingly different from (for example) a Catholic person’s, and my view of where life begins, what conception means, the value of an individual human’s life at various stages, and the impact of bringing more human lives into a stressed finite environment are all going to be influenced by that due to the different tools the two of us use to reach our conclusions. Thus, I disagree with floodmouse that this was mostly due to gut reactions (which is probably a view shared on both sides of the issue); though certainly I can see how it would appear that way when most of us are not offered the option to share our entire line of reasoning during such debates. A lot of us are passionate about our positions, so it’s natural that people on both sides become emotional when discussing it. The trick is checking that tendency and being able to have a reasoned and rational discussion – which is something that has been lacking from mainstream media (dare I say from its inception?)

    @James – I think it is actually provable that for some women, life would be better for the woman (and often the child) for that person not to have offspring in the first place. Just as it is for some men. If Americans were really as concerned as they claim to be about the sanctity of life and about “children being a blessing”, there wouldn’t be so many orphanages, so many children in foster care (in America, no less), many fewer dying from inexpensively preventable diseases, many fewer exploited and trafficked, and none going hungry. When it comes to words, as a society we’re eager to voice our opinion but reluctant to sacrifice our wants for a meaningful and lasting solution. I’m not inferring that you are one of those people, but I’ve heard the “but think of the children” line enough times from people who are that I believe it bears pointing out the disconnect. It’s easy to get on a moral high horse, but it proves to be quite difficult to ride.

  • LGR

    I’m afraid the world is already full of unwanted people, judging by the numbers of parents who abuse, neglect, abandon or sell their children for sex to strangers. The problem is that people (sorry, but mainly men) disassociate sex with pregnancy. Sex is there to propagate the species, but people treat it as an unwanted side effect!! If people treated sex as sacred – not just another form of entertainment – I think children would be valued. It’s terrible that a fetus’s life is valued only as much as the mother wants it to be – if she wants it, it’s precious, but if not, it’s simply thrown away. In the days before easy abortions, even pregnancies resulting from rape were carried to term – otherwise, Eartha Kitt would not have been born.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    @ James.
    Children are not a blessing. Nothing is. There is no such thing. ( a blessing is the infusion of something with holiness, spiritual redemption, divine will etc. It’s a myth)
    Children are parasites that are highly demanding of time and sometimes scant resources. But we love them anyway. I do agree with your sentiment about their treatment, so logically where an unwanted child would be born, it would not be just nor humane to make that unwanted child grow up in an anti-nurturing environment.

  • Peggy

    DC Warrior-Understanding is not the issue. We do understand. My problem is, what do you expect us to do with that understanding? Passively allow one law after another to be passed placing ridiculous hurdles that do nothing to protect the health and safety of women much less give them real information? Stay home and not act as clinic escorts and let girls and women going to clinics for abortions have the foulest abuse screamed at them and their supporters without a buffer? Say it’s fine to force doctors to tell women considering abortion potential “consequences” of abortion that either do not have scientific support or have been overwhelmingly shown to be false.? In the case of Plan B and the birth control pill, stay silent when anti-choice people claim that those medications are “abortifacents” for those anti-choice advocates who don’t want to admit that the real target isn’t just abortion, it’s contraception.

    @Jamessays: if children are always a blessing, why are there so many abused ones? The anti-choice forces that are now going after birth control do not want women/couples to be able to determine if they will have children and, if they do, how many and when so that babies. Where women/couples do have that ability, you optimize the chances of each baby born being born into a loving home that is physically, emotionally, and financially equipped to welcome it into the world. You might want to look at what happened in then Communist Romania after the Ceacescu regime banned birth control and abortion, including interrogating couples when the women didn’t show signs of pregnancy after a certain length of time. The so-called Romanian “orphans” were, for the most part, not orphans. Most were abandoned or turned over to state run orphanages by parents totally unable to feed another mouth.

  • Frank Glover

    James, for many women (and men) that assumption is absolutely correct. Either at that time, or possibly at ay time in their lives.

    And in the end, contraception, abortion or sterilization is done because they themselves have already reached that conclusion…

  • rachel

    I noticed some young men at my college saying how easy it is to obtain “Plan B” I overheard them saying “this Plan B rocks”, which indicated their level of sexual irresponsibility..and why would it be available to men, who can’t get pregnant? If I were a young and single female college student, I would be very very worried about what the boys are slipping in my drink. Beware!

  • Kula

    First of all, the FDA should clearly explain what morning after pills is all about, its effectiveness, and the advantages and the disadvantages of the morning after pills.
    A woman health should be between the woman, her family, and her doctor and not the public or politicians, especially male politicians who are not women and therefore do not know the implications of the function of a woman’s body.

  • Karolien

    In my opinion it’s quite shocking people call themselves pro life while being in favor of the death penalty. Additionally, calling a clump of a few cells a baby is just as ridiculous as calling cell lines persons. Murdering a sentient, living and breathing animal (human or not) is something very different from removing a few cells without hart or brains. And plan B doesn’t even do that. People who insist plan B is murder after having this information aren’t mentally healthy. They want to control people, especially women.

  • stace FerGodIt

    this is old, i had to reply. in the days before abortion pregnancies from rape were not carried to term. women did everything and anything they could to get rid of the thing. pennyroyal tea was popular – if it didn’t kill you first…there were MANY alternatives to carrying that fetus to term, and we took advantage of them ALL.

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