The Politics of a Pill

There is an old joke which claims that the Jewish position on abortion is that a fetus is a fetus until it graduates from medical school. Medical school and humor aside, this sentiment — that a fetus is a distinct organism endowed with divine rights of its own — is echoed by many whose strict religious beliefs frown upon any procedure that interferes with the conception of life.

Enter the “morning after” pill, levonorgestrel, commonly known as the Plan B contraceptive, which has recently sparked furious debate in the US over its accessibility. A popular and widely used pill in Europe and Canada, the morning-after pill is an easy and cost-effective method by which to end a possible pregnancy. After unprotected intercourse, the pill can be used up to 72 hours after sex to prohibit the egg from fertilization or implantation, and it is reportedly 75 percent effective.

The pill is currently available in the US, but only with a prescription. In December 2003, a Food and Drug Administration panel approved the over-the-counter sale of emergency contraception, but the favorable vote was eventually vetoed in May by Steven Galson (acting director of the FDA Center for Drug and Evaluation and Research), who disapproved the ready availability of Plan B, citing that inconclusive and insufficient evidence had been provided as to whether the pill could prove harmful to 11- to 15-year-old users (a category referred to by many as the least sexually active age range, and therefore a poor excuse to ban the pill from store shelves).

Galson’s surprising verdict, which has since provoked a heated debate both within the FDA and amongst abortion-rights groups, largely focuses blame on the current political climate in the US that may have affected the final disapproval of the over-the-counter sale of the product. According to a USA Today report (9 May 2004), the decision has prompted not only some advisory committee members to resign, but also pointed to the blatant political aspects surrounding the Plan B controversy. The article quotes one member of the committee, stating, “The decision is blatantly contrary to the science and the facts” and another that “The only way that this drug is going to be approved is if we get a new administration.”

In an election year which could seal the fate of President Bush’s administration, this issue has elevated to “hot topic” status as a large number of Democrats and American women feel that the current administration is on a mission to interfere not only with abortion issues but all manner of reproductive rights. The devoutly Christian Bush (who is also the father of two daughters of childbearing age) is a firm anti-abortion opponent whose record so far has indicated a clear interest to curtail future advancement and leniencies in this particular arena. In November 2003, the President approved a bill that bans “partial-birth” abortions — a complicated and rare procedure, which involves the termination of a fetus well in the last stages of pregnancy —. According to a press release on the White House website, Bush declares that “The right to life cannot be granted or denied by government because it does not come from the government; it comes from the creator of life.”

On the heels of Bush’s blow to abortion-rights groups came a massive pro-abortion, celebrity-strewn rally in Washington DC in April 2004, which drew approximately 600-800,000 supporters who marched in the nation’s capital not only to keep the Roe v. Wade dream alive, but to voice anger at the setbacks the current administration has posed. According to the Associated Press (26 April, 2004), in addition to the partial-birth abortion bill, abortion activists are also angered by another Bush legislation: “the first federal law to endow a fetus with legal rights distinct from the pregnant woman.” The separation of the fetus from the mother could pose a murky and dangerous climate in which the fetus becomes an independent entity, separated from the pregnant woman who is, after all, physically bound and responsible for it. Hence, the state would, in effect, represent said fetus’s rights.

As the emergency contraception argument looms, various pro and con factors come into play. Many opponents of the pill (such as the National Right to Life movement and a slew of religious groups) equate the start of life with the fertilization process, and argue that the morning-after pill is therefore no better than abortion. Another popular argument is that easy access to the pill could promote promiscuity, especially amongst teenagers who might pop the pill as a quick-fix solution to unprotected sex, and repeatedly refer to emergency contraception whenever they engage in such activities. (The pill, however, is currently most popular amongst 20- to 29-year-olds.)

But pro morning-after supporters claim that there is little evidence that ready access to the pill equals increased promiscuity. According to the BBC (8 July 1999), a report published in Finland studied more than 50,000 teens, and found that the majority had only used the pill once when absolutely necessary. Others argue that easy availability of the pill should focus specifically on younger teens, many of whom are prone to incidents of incest or forced sex. Writing in (1 June 2004), 2003 Kaiser Media Fellow Liza Mundy states that this particular group is in dire need of emergency contraception access since the pill “would give them a shot at staving off the consequences — consequences that hit young teenagers the hardest.” Many statistics also show that the US abortion rate has plummeted in recent years, and supporters of emergency contraception claim this as a victory, taking credit for the pill’s effectiveness in reducing the whopping number of abortions performed every year.

However, a climate of fear about abortion and contraception still exists both in the US and, particularly, in Third World nations, where there is limited education and access to either abortion or contraceptives. According to the research organization, the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), nearly 0.68 percent of African women die as a result of abortions, and approximately 52 percent of Latin American pregnancies are unplanned. In 2003, AGI also found that in the US, approximately “one-third of women now live in counties with no source of abortion services.”

The fear and apprehension about abortion and education about contraception are issues that will inevitably resurface full-force in the next few months as the US Election countdown and the battle of the Democratic vs. Republican agendas escalate. Should Bush win a second term, it’s unlikely that the over-counter-sale of the morning-after pill will ever see the light of day. A John Kerry victory, however, could spell a coup for the pill and pro-abortion groups could see an ally in Kerry as they did in President Clinton.

But the final decision is personal, which only the woman and man in question should be allowed to make. Government involvement to date has only exacerbated and complicated an issue that should remain an individual’s choice. Abortions leave scars. They are painful decisions that affect one emotionally and physically, leaving many who have undergone the procedure to wonder what would have happened had they chosen to keep their child. But most often, abortions are necessary, and when an option — such as the morning-after pill — presents itself as a safe, reliable solution, it should be promoted and made available for all.