Access to abortion is a big political topic this year, but there’s another issue that merits attention, and that’s hormonal birth control. As Sandra Fluke reminded us earlier this year, there’s a big conservative push to limit access to birth control too, including through measures like excluding it from coverage in health plans. They really are coming for your birth control, people, so you’d better arm yourself.
A lot of “moderate” anti-choice people claim that they simply oppose abortion, and are not opposed to other forms of family planning, though many of them actually also argue policy positions consistent with denying family planning services. For example, they think government funds shouldn’t be used to support organizations and clinics that provide well-patient exams, contraception education, and other services if abortion is even mentioned as an option, let alone offered as a referral or provided on the premises.
There’s more going on beneath the surface here, though: many of them believe hormonal birth control is an abortifacient. Here in the US, where close to 40% of women use some form of hormonal birth control, that’s seriously bad news, because the people pushing to ban abortion also want to get rid of the pill, hormonal IUDs, the shot, the ring, and hormone implants.
To understand that anti-choice position on hormonal birth control, you have to suspend how science works for a moment.
There’s a lot of debate over when, precisely, life begins, and determining the answer to that is the deciding factor in the debate over reproductive rights. Anti-choice people think life begins at conception, and they define that as when an egg is fertilized, not when it has implanted in the uterine wall.
Others feel differently. I, like many people, believe that life begins when a baby is born and able to live independently of its mother. Others think life begins at implantation. Medically speaking, according to Heather Corinna of Scarleteen, who kindly chatted with me about this issue,
...abortion, as a medical procedure, is only something that can be done when an ovum has been fertilized, has implanted, and then has begun the long process of development.
So in other words, a fertilized egg alone isn't enough to perform an abortion.
How does this all connect with birth control? Hormonal birth control works to suppress ovulation, alter cervical mucus to make it more difficult for fertilization to occur, and limit opportunities for implantation if an egg is fertilized. However, according to Contraceptive Technology, which is a definitive text on the subject, the last function of birth control is actually a subject of debate:
COCs (combined oral contraceptives) prevent fertilization and, therefore, qualify as contraceptives. There is no significant evidence that they work after fertilization. The progestins in all COCs provide most of the contraceptive effect by suppressing ovulation and thickening cervical mucus, although the estrogens also make a small contribution to ovulation suppression. Cycle control is enhanced by the estrogen. Because COCs so effectively suppress ovulation and block ascent of sperm into the upper genital tract, the potential impact on endometrial receptivity to implantation is almost academic. When the two primary mechanisms fail, the fact that pregnancy occurs despite the endometrial changes demonstrates that those endometrial changes do not significantly contribute to the pill's mechanism of action.
Even though there’s increasing evidence that it may not actually prevent implantation most of the time, many anti-choice people believe that hormonal birth control is an abortifacient. Science was never one to stop anti-choicers!
...keep in mind that the term “implantation,” by definition, always involves an already conceived human being. Therefore, any agent which serves to prevent implantation functions as an abortifacient.
But if you believe that, you also must believe that the uterus is a child-hungry bloodbath, because 50% of fertilized eggs naturally fail to implant. Not only that, but once they do implant, 31% later miscarry. It’s like the Wild West in there!
Or, as the fabulous Heather put it when I talked to her about this issue:
These arguments, as you probably know, when followed to their logical conclusion, and when we actually are square with the reality of what bodies do, would also then be saying that a person's own body is an abortifacient.
Who better to explain their position than, well, one of them?
...birth control pills are abortifacients. Abortifacients are devices or drugs that causes [sic] an abortion. Intrauterine devices (or IUD) are devices of various shapes placed inside the uterus, altering the lining of the uterus in such a way as to prevent the (fertilized) developing human egg to implant in the uterine lining and growing to maturity...The truth about conception has also been perverted to dismiss pregnancy. Pro-abortion, pro-"contraception" peddlers have re-defined pregnancy as the implantation of the fertilized egg. Using this definition, if birth control pills or an IUD prevents implantation of the (fertilized) developing egg, then it can be stated that birth control pills and IUD's prevent pregnancy.
Redefined, eh? Remind me again of the number of successful pregnancies in history involving fertilized eggs that failed to implant? I'll wait while you look that up.
This attitude is so entrenched that in several states, including Georgia, there have been attempts to criminalize miscarriage. Despite the fact that most pregnancies miscarry before patients are even aware of the pregnancy, anti-choice people want to make natural bodily processes a crime.
Getting a glimpse under the hood of anti-choice attitudes about birth control explains why they’re so determined to ban it, and why it’s so important to protect access, because these are the people pushing major policy decisions. Using bad science to justify restrictive policy is gross, and we shouldn't be standing for it.