Medical experts, pro-life advocates, and women's groups are once again debating the moral questions raised by so-called "morning-after" pills. On June 17, an advisory panelrecommended that the FDA approve anemergency contraceptive known as "ella" for prescription use. Ella differs from Plan B, an emergency contraceptive FDA-approved for over-the-counter use, because it is effective for up to 120 hours after a woman has unprotected sex, while Plan B is only effective up to 72 hours after sex.
The controversy over ella centers on scientific uncertainty about its mechanism of action—whether it only delays ovulation, thereby preventing fertilization altogether, or whether it might also prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. The manufacturer has conducted studies showing that ella can delay ovulation. They have neither studied, nor do they plan to study, whether ella can also prevent implantation.
Because ella is a close chemical relative to RU-486, a pill that can terminate an early pregnancy,pro-life groups oppose FDA approval of ella because of its potential capacity to prevent implantation. Advocates for ella argue that the FDA should take a "just the facts" approach that solely evaluates whether the drug is safe and effective for its intended and studied use—preventing pregnancy after unprotected sex by delaying ovulation.
Given the potential for ella to prevent implantation, it makes sense for pro-life groups to oppose the drug's approval. But in reading news coverage of the debates, I was struck by the tenuous nature of moral arguments centered on inconclusive scientific data. Both opponents and proponents of ella are focused on what science hasn't yet made clear—whether or not the drug can prevent implantation. ...1
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