In the midst of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings on Oct. 13, Senator Ted Cruz misdefined birth control in a misleading and problematic way. Namely, he referred to birth control as “anti-abortion drugs.”
To catch you up, Cruz brought up birth control when discussing implied threats to religious freedom. He specifically referenced the Supreme Court case of The Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania. In this case, the Little Sisters of the Poor asked for exemption from the part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that requires health plans to cover all FDA-approved contraceptive methods. Key word: contraceptive. (The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that organizations could opt out of this requirement for religious and moral reasons.)
In the hearing, Cruz said, “The Little Sisters of the Poor, our Catholic Convent of nuns, who take oaths of poverty, who devote their lives to caring for the sick, caring for the needy, caring for the elderly, and the Obama administration litigated against the Little Sisters of the Poor, seeking to fine them in order to force them to pay for abortion-inducing drugs among others.”
Buried in the rhetoric is a glaring error. Cruz is saying that contraceptives are “abortion-inducing drugs,” which is medically inaccurate. Here’s why.
Why Contraceptives Don’t Cause Abortions
Pregnancy officially begins when a fertilized egg is implanted in the uterine lining. According to the New York Times, anti-abortion groups use the phrase “abortion-inducing” to describe methods that they say can prevent this implantation from happening.
As the NYT explains, this assumption is already incorrect; if pregnancy does not begin until implantation, a contraceptive that prevents implantation can’t be called abortion-inducing, because there is not yet a pregnancy to terminate. (Implantation, not fertilization, is considered the beginning of pregnancy because many fertilized eggs naturally fail to implant in the uterus.) Regardless, nearly all forms of birth control do not prevent pregnancy in this way. Rather, they prevent eggs from being fertilized at all, one step before implantation would even occur. Here’s how several of the most popular forms of birth control work.
- Combination birth control pills: Combination birth control pills contain both estrogen and progestin. Taking the pills every day prevents pregnancy by preventing ovulation, as well as altering the cervical mucus and uterine lining to keep sperm from reaching the egg.
- Progestin-only birth control pills: Unlike combination birth control pills, progestin-only pills do not contain estrogen. These pills do not also suppress ovulation as consistently as combination pills. They prevent pregnancy by thickening the cervical mucus and thinning the uterine lining, stopping sperm from reaching the egg.
- Hormonal IUD: An IUD, or intrauterine device, is a small plastic device inserted into the uterine. A hormonal IUD releases progestin, which prevents pregnancy by thickening cervical mucus and preventing ovulation.
- Copper IUD: A copper IUD, which does not use hormones, may be able to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. However, it is also effective at preventing fertilization, because the copper changes the way sperm cells move, making it so they can’t swim to an egg.
- Emergency contraceptive pills: Emergency contraceptives are taken in the days immediately following unprotected sex. They prevent pregnancy by delaying ovulation, or the release of an egg from your ovary.
Birth control by definition does not end a pregnancy; it prevents it from happening in the first place. As reproductive health continues to be a political talking point, it’s crucial to hold politicians accountable on these key points, which have a direct effect on our bodies and lives.