The Morning-After Myth

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 4 2008 7:49 AM

The Morning-After Myth

David Savage, one of my favorite legal writers, has a good story in the L.A. Times about President Bush's plan to protect medical employees from punishment when they refuse to violate their consciences. The idea sounds good till you read the details : The rule bars "any entity" that gets federal money (e.g., private companies that happen to be funded in part by a grant) from disciplining any employee, including one "whose task it is to clean the instruments." Savage reports :

Proponents, including the Christian Medical Assn. and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, say the rule is not limited to abortion. It will protect doctors who do not wish to prescribe birth control or to provide artificial insemination, said Dr. David Stevens, president of CMA. "The real battle line is the morning-after pill," he said. "This prevents the embryo from implanting. This involves moral complicity. Doctors should not be required to dispense a medication they have a moral objection to."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


Hey, I'm all for respecting moral objections. Doctors are entitled to their own ethical judgments, regardless of what the medical establishment says. But they're not entitled to such defiance when the judgments in question are scientific. And what Dr. Stevens says about the morning-after pill—that it "prevents the embryo from implanting"—is such a gross misrepresentation that it's amazing he's in charge of any medical association.

Let's get clear on two important points. First, "morning-after" does not mean "after-fertilization." To repeat what I wrote about this two years ago :

An egg loses its fertility within 12 to 24 hours . It takes sperm about 10 hours to reach the egg, and sperm can survive in the female reproductive tract for up to five days . If you want to get pregnant, you'd better send in the sperm before the egg shows up. But if you don't want to get pregnant, and the sperm are on their way or already there, you still have time to stop the egg.

Second, of all the ways in which a morning-after pill might block pregnancy, preventing implantation is the least plausible. Chemically, a morning-after pill is a form of oral contraception. Here are the facts :

The risk that oral contraception will prevent implantation of an embryo is purely theoretical. There is no documented case of such a tragedy, since we have no way to verify conception inside a woman's body prior to implantation without causing the embryo's death. Even theoretically, the risk is vanishingly small , since the primary effect of oral contraception is to prevent ovulation , and the secondary effect is to prevent fertilization . To classify oral contraception as abortifacient, one would have to posit a scenario in which the drug fails to block ovulation, then fails to block fertilization, and yet somehow, having proved impotent at every other task, manages to prevent implantation.

So what Stevens says is, at a minimum, a gross distortion. And it's a particularly evil distortion because it steers women away, not from abortion, but from the measure that is at that moment most likely to prevent them from later resorting to an abortion. If I ran a medical facility and found out one of my doctors was feeding patients that kind of propaganda, I'd fire him. And the government, particularly a government that calls itself conservative, has no business standing in my way.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.