Date Rape and Emergency Contraception


You may have heard of emergency contraception, better known as the “morning after” pill, for a woman who has had unplanned, unprotected or forced sex and is concerned about the possibility of pregnancy. What exactly is this medication, and how does it work?

“Morning after” pills contain the same types of hormones found in oral contraceptives, but are specially packaged and intended to be used within the first 72 hours after intercourse. The first brand approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for this purpose was Preven, which contains both estrogen and progesterone.

Preven comes in a kit with four pills and a pregnancy test (to insure that a woman isn’t already pregnant from a previous sexual contact, in which case the pills would not be used). Two of the pills are to be taken within 72 hours after intercourse, and the remaining two 12 hours later.

Preven reduces the likelihood of becoming pregnant by 75 percent. About half of women who take this combination become nauseated, and one in five will experience vomiting. Another brand, marketed under the name Plan B, consists only of progesterone, and is reported to have a higher rate of effectiveness in preventing pregnancy, while provoking less nausea and vomiting. Neither of these brands, or any other combination of oral contraceptive pills that might be used as emergency contraception, protect against sexually transmitted infections.

How do these medications work? That depends on the time in a woman’s cycle when they are taken. They may prevent ovulation—the release of the egg from the ovary—or they might delay ovulation until sperm are no longer capable of fertilizing an egg. (Sperm cells survive about five days.) They may also interfere with the movement of egg and sperm within the tube (called the fallopian tube) that connects the uterus (or womb) and the ovary, or with the actual union of egg and sperm. All of these mechanisms are truly
contraceptive—that is, they prevent fertilization (also called conception), the union of egg and sperm that starts a new human life.
It is also possible that “morning after” pills take effect after fertilization, by changing the lining of the uterus so that the fertilized egg—a new human in the first few days of life—cannot implant within it.

This mechanism is not truly contraceptive, because conception has already occurred, but rather represents a very early abortion.

Promoters of emergency contraception pills state that these medications do not cause abortion, but this claim is based on their definition of pregnancy as beginning with the implanting of the fertilized egg within the uterus. For those who hold that human life begins at conception, however, any medication or device that prevents a new life from continuing in its normal development would be considered abortifacient, or abortion-inducing.

Because a new human life deserves to be protected at its earliest stages—even in the most difficult circumstances—the various mechanisms by which “morning after” pills might work create a real dilemma, because it is impossible to know which of them might be acting in any particular case.

In deciding whether or not to use this type of medication, a woman who has been sexually assaulted should seek and prayerfully consider counsel from her family, her physician and her pastor.

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