The Morning After

Responding to a reader's suggestion that one can both believe that abortion should be outlawed and believe that killing a baby is morally worse than killing an embryo, Andrew writes, "I wonder if this argument leads one to believe that morning-after contraception is less morally troubling than second trimester abortion?" The obvious answer seems to me to be yes (this is a point that came up a long-ago blog discussion of abortion, for those interested in wading into the weeds). But it's also worth noting that case of the morning-after pill is distinct from the case of the late-term abortion in another way, because it isn't clear that the most common form of morning-after pill is an abortifacient at all. I made this point a while back in the context of the debate over the South Dakota abortion ban, when Will Saletan argued that it's morally inconsistent for a state to ban abortion but permit - or even encourage - the use of Plan B. Not so, I wrote:

The law's provision allowing "the sale, use, prescription, or administration of a contraceptive measure, drug or chemical" before a pregnancy can be detected is an obvious nod to morning-after pills like Plan B, as Saletan admits. Now, it's true that Plan B can act as an abortifacient, by inhibiting implantation of a fertilized ovum. At least, it can in theory. But it's designed to work as a contraceptive, one that prevents ovulation and fertilization - and its abortifacient effect seems to be largely speculative at this point. Which means that a woman taking Plan B is intending to contracept, using a method that has a microscopic chance of accidentally causing an abortion - and this seems obviously different, legally speaking, from a woman who deliberately procures an abortion. Accident is different from intent: After all, it's been argued that the regular-old birth control pill itself (of which, I believe, Plan B is just a particularly high dose) can lead to abortions in extremely rare situations, leading some Protestants to join the Catholic Church in rejecting its use. But I don't think that this means that pro-lifers are logically required to support a legal ban on the Pill.

For the curious, here are a pair of studies that suggest that Plan B does not, in fact, have an abortifacient affect. And you can find a more in-depth look at the subject from a pro-life blogger here.

(Of course, it's also worth noting that if emergency contraception may not be as close to abortion as some pro-lifers suggest it is, neither does it seem to have the kind of potential to reduce the abortion rate that many Saletan-style "queasy-about-abortion" pro-choicers credit it with.)

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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