Yesterday the Food and Drug Administration recommended approval of an emergency contraceptive that women in Europe have been using safely since last year. The new drug, ella, is designed to be taken up to five days after sexual intercourse takes place, extending the time after sex that women can prevent pregnancy. (Plan B, an emergency contraceptive that must be taken within 72 hours to be effective, was approved by the FDA in 2006 and released for over-the-counter use for women over 17 last year.)
But though this is good news for women who will now have more family planning options, the lead up to the FDA panel vote caused anti-abortion groups to protest that ella wasn’t just an emergency contraceptive — that in fact it was an abortion drug. This issue was heavily reported in a Washington Post piece last weekend, in which it quoted four anti-choice advocates in which they said factually incorrect things:
“With ulipristal [the scientific name for ella], women will be enticed to buy a poorly tested abortion drug, unaware of its medical risks, under the guise that it’s a morning-after pill,” said Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America, which led the battle against Plan B.
Concerned Women for America is an anti-choice group that was founded by Beverly LaHaye, wife of the author of the popular apocalyptic Left Behind series. The current top story on CWFA’s site is a feature that argues repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a bad idea. But despite CWFA’s claims, women in Europe have been taking ella since it was approved in Europe last year, and was tested on more than 4,500 women before it was released to the general public there.
Additionally the Post highlighted a common myth about contraception perpetrated by anti-choice advocates: “Critics fear that women who do not realize they are already pregnant will use the drug, unwittingly giving themselves an abortion.”
In fact, according to the New York Times article about the drug’s approval, this isn’t the case:
Animal studies showed that ella had little effect on established pregnancies, suggesting it acts differently than RU-486. Dr. David Archer, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Eastern Virginia Medical School who spoke on behalf of ella’s maker, said ella was not an abortion pill. “I just don’t think there is any element here that would allow me to say that this has an abortifacient activity,” Dr. Archer said.
All too often, science that involves women’s reproductive systems tends to be held to a different standard of reporting. Instead of reporting what the science says about the issue, the reporters often write that “Critics say X,” whether or not X actually has any scientific proof.
In the long run, reporting what “critics” say too often not only gives legitimacy to bogus claims about what contraception does and doesn’t do (Bush-appointed Heath and Human Services officials made a last-ditch effort in 2008 to rebrand contraception as abortion), but it also causes confusion among the general public. If they read “critics say X” they might remember that as fact, whether or not it’s actually true.
Instead of reporting science about women’s bodies as just another political story, it would be nice if reporters treated the stories as what they are — science stories.