Oh, Those Darned Terms (part 2)

By Mark McQuain

Voltaire has been credited with saying: “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms”. In a previous blog entry, Tom Garigan reminded us that it is literally vital that we define our terms when we engage in ethical debates, particularly those ethical debates related to the beginning of life. Explicit definition of terms should apply for opinion pieces in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) as well.

In a recent NEJM Perspective (subscription required), Cynthia Chuang, MD, and Carol Weisman, PhD, are concerned that the Trump administration’s November 15th publication of final rules (HERE and HERE), broadly allowing employers to deny contraceptive coverage to their employees on the basis of religious or moral objections, will “undermine women’s reproductive autonomy and could lead to an increase in rates of unintended pregnancies, unintended births, and abortions.” The article provides a summary of the political back and forth of court injunctions and rule modifications that have ensued, which is interesting but not the point of this blog entry. I want to focus on one of the four main objections they raise against allowing employers religious or moral exemptions from the current requirement that employers provide all FDA-approved contraceptive/birth-control methods.

There are 18 FDA-approved Birth Control methods for women provided by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly called Obamacare or ACA) without cost-sharing [that is, at no cost to the patient]. These are also referred to as contraceptives. A contraceptive is defined as a method that prevents pregnancy. Pregnancy has been defined as either beginning at conception (the union of an egg and sperm that results in a fertilized egg) or beginning at implantation of a fertilized egg into the lining of the uterus. This difference in definition impacts how one views certain contraceptive methods that may work in part by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting into the wall of the uterus. Any contraceptive method that prevents implantation causes the intentional death of that fertilized egg and would correctly be an abortifacient (a birth control method that causes an abortion) if pregnancy is defined as beginning with conception. An intrauterine device (IUD) and Levonorgestrel (PlanB) both work primarily by preventing the egg and sperm from joining to create a fertilized egg, but some argue that it can not be proven that these methods don’t also work, in part, by preventing implantation ((PlanB) (IUD).

This background is useful in discussing Chuang and Weisman’s third objection to allowing employers religious and moral objections against the full gamut of FDA-approved birth control methods currently allowed by the ACA:

“Third, the rules allow entities to deny coverage of contraceptives to which they have a religious or moral objection, including certain contraceptive services “which they consider to be abortifacients.” By definition, contraceptives prevent pregnancy and are not abortifacients. Allowing employers to determine which contraceptives they consider to be abortifacients, rather than relying on medical definitions and evidence, promotes the spread of misinformation.”

The previous link on IUD by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) relies on the definition of pregnancy that defines pregnancy as beginning with the implantation of a fertilized egg into the lining of the uterus. Neither an IUD nor Plan B are believed to terminate a pregnancy after implantation and therefore, under ACOG’s definition, the one relied upon by Chuang and Weisman, neither is an abortifacient. If pregnancy begins with conception, then both Plan B and the IUD are potential abortifacients, as both interfere with implantation of an otherwise viable fertilized egg. ACOG admits the IUD interferes with implantation in their position paper linked above.

Rather than rhetorically condemning employers who have genuine religious and moral concerns about participating in the termination of innocent life by implying they fail to rely on proper “medical definitions and evidence”, Chuang and Weisman (and ACOG for that matter) should do better job explaining their definitions so they can also avoid promoting “the spread of misinformation”.

Oh, those darned terms!

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