OTTAWA, MAY 29, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Many countries have eased restrictions on the distribution of “morning-after” pills. The initiatives have drawn strong criticism from local bishops, who have pointed out the abortive nature of the pills, contradicting official claims that the pills are only contraceptive and not abortifacient.
Last week, Health Minister Pierre Pettigrew of Canada announced a proposal to amend the Food and Drug Regulations to allow to allow what he termed “emergency contraceptives” to be available without a doctor’s prescription. The pill will be available after a consultation with a pharmacist. The provinces of British Columbia, Quebec and Saskatchewan already allow the pills to be sold following this type of consultation, said the Globe and Mail newspaper May 18.
Advocates of the measure defended the change to federal rules saying that speedy access is needed since the pill must be taken within 72 hours after sexual intercourse in order to be effective.
Pettigrew’s move drew an immediate reaction from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. In a May 19 statement, the conference referred to a letter dated last Nov. 27 and sent to the health minister by Bishop Pierre Morrisette of Baie-Comeau, chairman of the Catholic Organization for Life and Family.
The November letter pointed out that pregnancy begins with conception, not implantation. “It is thus inaccurate to refer to this pill as emergency contraception, given its potential to act as an abortifacient,” the letter observed.
Bishop Morrisette also argued that women who think they are in need of “emergency contraception” are also in need of “counseling, support, information about how the pill works, its physical and psychological side effects, the dangers of regular use, the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and guidance about relationships.” He doubted that such needs could “be truly met in the context of a very busy, very public and perhaps impersonal pharmacy.”
Dr. Will Johnston, president of Canadian Physicians for Life, in a May 20 declaration highlighted the health risks associated with the pill. It is basically a multiple dose of an oral contraceptive, levonorgestrel, which is found in the birth-control pill, he explained. Due to serious side effects, manufacturers have reduced the hormone content of oral contraceptives.
“Now women are being encouraged to use these same pills, in multiple doses, as post-coital ‘contraception,'” Johnston said. “The potential long-term impact of these high hormone doses, especially when used repeatedly, is worrisome and not being adequately addressed.”
Full-court press in Latin America
This year a series of Latin American countries introduced the morning-after pill. In January, Mexican federal health authorities allowed distribution of the pill in public clinics, provoking strong protests by the Church. A Jan. 23 statement by the Church commission on family pastoral matters drew attention to the pill’s abortive effects. The declaration also expressed concern for women’s health, due to the lack of information made available on the pill’s secondary effects. Moreover, the spread of the morning-after pill shows how the boundary between abortion and contraception is blurring, noted the commission, leading to the spread of an anti-life mentality.
The following month, the Honduras episcopal conference denounced the distribution of the morning-after pill in the country. In a Feb. 6 declaration the bishops deplored the campaign started by the government a few days earlier, noting that authorities were working in conjunction with a major chain of British abortion clinics, Marie Stopes.
Life is the greatest gift given by God to humans, noted the bishops, and only the Creator can give it or take it away. Men and women participate with God in the transmission of human life, but this is a task marked by responsibility and dignity, they explained.
Advocates of family planning argue that pregnancy only begins after the embryo has implanted itself in the womb. But the declaration affirmed that genetics clearly shows that a new life begins from the moment of fertilization. To speak of the newly conceived human embryo as a “pre-embryo” is simply a sophism. And, they warned, those who collaborate in promoting abortive methods cannot be living members of the Church.
Then, in April, the Colombian government authorized local authorities to distribute, under medical prescription, the morning-after pill. The government defended its action by saying it is necessary to reduce the number of pregnancies among adolescents, the local newspaper El Tiempo reported April 13.
The Colombian bishops’ conference replied, saying that while teen-age pregnancies are worrying, it is also important to respect human dignity and the right to life.
Chile too has seen heated controversy, following the government’s decision to authorize the provision of the pills, cost free, to rape victims, effective from May 15. In 2001, Chile’s Supreme Court rejected attempts to introduce a brand of the pills, Postinal, because of its abortive effects.
Nevertheless, the government sidestepped the court ruling by using another type of pill, Postinor-2, the newspaper El Mercurio explained May 12. The first 20,000 of these pills have already arrived.
The Chilean bishops’ Bioethics Commission attacked the decision in a declaration dated April 16. It noted that innocent lives be lost. But it also noted that no medical evidence of rape is necessary for women to obtain the pills. Nor do they have to make any complaint to the police.
A May 1 pastoral letter by Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, the archbishop of Santiago, observed that the pills are promoted as a means to alleviate the suffering of innocent victims. Yet what is placed at risk is the most basic of human rights: that of life itself. Respect for the value of human life does not admit any exceptions, he argued. And the exercise of liberty is limited by the right to life of others, he added.
Wider access to the morning-after pill is not limited to Latin America. The same pill introduced in Chile, Postinor-2, has been available over the counter in Australian pharmacies since Jan. 1. And girls as young as 13 are buying the pills, the Herald Sun newspaper in Melbourne reported March 28.
But opponents of the morning-after pill won a victory, at least temporarily, in the United States. The federal Food and Drug Administration rejected a petition to allow a brand of the pill, Plan B, to be sold without a prescription. Regulators rejected the application by Barr Pharmaceuticals due to concerns about whether young girls would be able to use it safely, the New York Times reported May 7.
“We are pleased that the voice of reason prevailed,” said Cathy Cleaver Ruse, a spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. “A drug which can destroy human embryos and increases health risks to women and girls does not belong on the drugstore shelf.”
Ruse observed that this type of morning-after pill has been linked with a higher risk of ectopic pregnancy, a potentially fatal condition. Medical authorities in the United Kingdom and New Zealand have issued warnings about the drug’s dangers. The U.S. agency, however, said it would reconsider its decision on Plan B if its producer provides more information. Meaning that the debate in the States could return.