Friday, December 27, 2002

Emergency contraceptives do their job

There were 1.3 million abortions in the United States in 2000. That's 100,000 fewer than in 1994, the last year a similar study was done. Abortions have fallen 7 percent, these statistics show.

Parties on both sides of the abortion debate eagerly embrace such statistics. Any sign that intentional pregnancy terminations are declining is welcome news for everyone.

A national study published this month asserts that fewer women need to go through abortion, thanks in part to emergency contraception pills.

The pills may have prevented 51,000 abortions in 2000. In 1994, when a similar study was last done, emergency contraception was less well known and prevented some 4,000 abortions.

Not everyone buys those statistics. They are, after all, based on extrapolations.

But many abortion foes incorrectly say the drug itself is adding to abortion numbers, not subtracting from them. But they're counting pregnancies that don't exist.

Just in time

Emergency contraceptive pills are concentrated doses of hormones commonly found in FDA-approved birth control pills. These medications are prescribed at higher than normal doses and must be taken quickly after unprotected sex. Within 72 hours is most effective to prevent pregnancy, though studies show they can work as late as five days after sex.

Emergency pills are not to be confused with RU486, the so-called abortion pill.

Emergency contraceptives work before a pregnancy can be established. They delay or inhibit ovulation, which is the release of the egg from ovaries. Scientists say emergency contraception can prevent pregnancy in 75 percent to 89 percent of cases, depending on which hormones are used.

But if a woman is already pregnant, emergency contraception won't cause her to abort.

By contrast, RU486 is used to induce an abortion. Typically after a woman has missed a period, up to seven weeks after a confirmed pregnancy, RU486 can be taken to cause intrauterine contractions. The FDA approved RU486, but the drug is still difficult for many to obtain.

The new study analyzes responses of 10,683 women who obtained abortions in 2000. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group in New York, sponsored the study, which was published in the November/December issue of the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

The survey asked the women all kinds of intimate questions: When did you last use a contraceptive method? How did you get pregnant anyway?

More than half the women, 54 percent, said they were using contraception of some form in the month they became pregnant. Most of the rest used nothing. At least 1.3 percent used emergency contraception, but it failed.

What is pregnancy?

In rare instances, when conditions are ideal, a woman can become pregnant within minutes of having unprotected sex. In such cases, conception would have taken place before the woman took the pills. The medication then would prevent pregnancy by barring the fertilized egg - or pre-embryo - from implanting in uterine wall.

In most doctors' eyes, the woman is not pregnant until implantation. But many abortion opponents say fertilization is when life begins, not implantation.

That is how abortion foes justify objecting to emergency contraception. Some pharmacies refuse to carry the pills, including Wal-Mart.

That's why women should ask their doctors for a prescription - in advance - and find a pharmacy that stocks it, just in case.

E-mail or phone 768-8395.

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