Some corrections and clarifications

Project letter to the Calgary Herald

Sean Murphy*

While I am pleased to see that Laura Wershler is willing to accommodate freedom of conscience among health care workers, I must correct some misleading statements included in her article (“The morning after: Pro-life agenda misrepresents the emergency contraceptive pill, or ECP”,Calgary Herald, 13 February, 2004).

In the first place, is the URL of the Protection of Conscience Project, not “Repression of Conscience”. Contrary to Ms. Wershler’s assertion, this is a non-denominational human rights project, not a not a pro-life initiative. Pro-lifers are interested in the Project and sometimes link to our website, but the Project does not take a position on the morality of controversial procedures. It is enough to recognize the controversy, and advocate the accommodation of conscientious objectors. At least one pro-life pharmacist does not use the Project pamphlet about the morning-after pill precisely because the pamphlet does not argue against its use.

Second, Ms. Wershler’s article incorrectly attributes to the Project the use of the terms “abortion drug” and “emergency contraceptive (ECP)”. The Project does not use either term, except when quoting other sources. They are confusing, and complicate articulation of freedom of conscience issues.

“Abortion drug” is an appropriate description of mifepristone (RU486), which is designed specifically to cause the abortion of an embryo that has implanted in the uterus. The morning-after pill has not been designed for that purpose, and does not act in that way.

“Emergency contraception” is a fabulously successful marketing term. However, 94% of the women who take the morning-after pill do not require it to prevent childbirth. This statistic, provided by the drug’s advocates,[1] belies the notion of ’emergency’ that is often used to browbeat conscientious objectors. As to “contraceptive”, Ms.Wershler herself acknowledges that these drugs have three mechanisms of action, one of which may prevent implantation of the early embryo, thus causing its death. This is considered by many conscientious objectors to be the moral equivalent of abortion, a term acknowledged as appropriate by some authorities,[2] though the usage is not uncontested. The Project refers to these drugs generically as the ‘morning-after pill’ because this term is widely understood. We describe the morning-after pill as “potentially abortifacient”, in the sense that it may cause the death of the early embryo, but does not necessarily do so.

A final note to prevent further confusion: the meaning of “abortifacient” in a medical or scientific context is not the same as its meaning in a moral context. In a medical context, a drug that prevents fertilization (acts contraceptively) 95 to 99 times out of a hundred would be called a contraceptive rather than a abortifacient. But in a moral context, when the outcome may be death, a drug may be treated as an abortifacient if there is even a 1% chance of it killing the embryo by preventing implantation. A number of disputes that arise about the morning-after pill are a regrettable consequence of failing to recognize these distinctions.


1. Apply a calculator to the following statement: “In 16 months of ECP services, pharmacists provided almost 12,000 ECP prescriptions, which is estimated to have prevented about 700 unintended pregnancies.” Cooper, Janet, Brenda Osmond and Melanie Rantucci, “Emergency Contraceptive Pills- Questions and Answers”. Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal, June 2000, Vol. 133, No. 5, at p. 28.

2. Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology (6th ed.) (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1998), p. 532. Quoted in Irving, Diane N., A “One-Act Drama:The Early Human Embryo:’Scientific’ Myths and Scientific Facts:Implications for Ethics and Public Policy, Medicine and Human Dignity.” International Bioethics Conference, ‘Conceiving the Embryo’, Centre Culturel, Woluwe-St. Pierre, Brussels, Belgium: October 20, 2002 (9:30 A.M.)(Revised 23 October, 2002) Note 23.

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