Emergency contraception (EC) — the “morning-after pill” — is taken by a woman after an episode of unprotected intercourse in order to try to prevent pregnancy. It contains a hormone that acts to prevent pregnancy by preventing ovulation (the release of an egg from the ovary). However, theoretically, if ovulation has already occurred, EC might prevent pregnancy by preventing implantation, the attaching of an already-fertilized egg to the lining of the uterus. This second, conjectural mechanism raises ethical problems for those of us who consider that life begins at the moment of conception, since preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg could be viewed as inducing an abortion. Should we oppose EC because it might in theory cause an abortion?
The authors of a review article in the Fall 2012 issue of Ethics & Medicine address just this question. They review the best available scientific evidence and conclude that there is “sufficient motivation” to believe that EC does not prevent implantation, and therefore does not cause abortion. (p. 116)
Good ethics begins with good facts. But our understanding of scientific facts is constantly changing; so even though we use the same moral reasoning (“It is wrong to deliberately take a human life, so one should not use a medication to cause an abortion”), our ethical conclusions may change as our understanding of the facts progresses (i.e., if the facts indicate that EC causes abortion, we should not advocate its use; on the other hand, if the best data indicates that EC does not cause abortion, it may be ethically justifiable to use in certain circumstances ).
In a fallen world, our knowledge of the truth will always be imperfect; but it is the best we have to work with. Given the current state of knowledge, it appears that EC is not tantamount to abortion, and that I should not use “It might cause an abortion” as a reason not to prescribe it in certain circumstances (such as rape). I am open to changing this stance as knowledge grows and changes; what I am not willing to change is my commitment to not deliberately take a human life.
(See my post here for more on this topic.)