German Bishops Aren’t the First to Allow for Plan B

German Bishops Aren’t the First to Allow for Plan B

This morning, a headline blazed across many Catholic computer screens stating German bishops’ decision to allow the ‘morning-after pill’ in rape cases. The article quoted Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg as saying that the ‘morning-after pill’ could be used “as long as this has a prophylactic and not an abortive effect.” The outrage among faithful Catholics that such an announcement generates is understandable, as the bishops’ decision not only continues to create a market for the ‘morning-after pill’ but, more notably, dances a line between preventing pregnancy and killing a baby.

What might surprise many Catholics is that the new position of the German bishops has been the position of the USCCB since at least 2009. In the USCCB’s document, Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, section 36 states:

36. Compassionate and understanding care should be given to a person who is the victim of sexual assault. Health care providers should cooperate with law enforcement officials and offer the person psychological and spiritual support as well as accurate medical information. A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization.

The ‘morning-after pill,’ as well as other contraceptives, can prevent ovulation and fertilization and are very often marketed as such, yet function primarily as an abortifacient, causing a chemical abortion. This is commonly understood, especially within the pro-life movement, and what goes largely unnoticed are implications of the phrasing, “act as an abortifacient.” The word “act” applies to behavior, while “is” speaks of the essence of the thing. If the ‘morning-after pill’ “is” an abortifacient, then it causes abortions whenever it is used, but if it “acts” as an abortifacient, then it can only be considered so when it actually causes an abortion.

The USCCB Directive allows for “medications that would prevent ovulation … or fertilization” if “appropriate testing” indicates that conception has not occurred. The issue is that there is no magical device for knowing the truth of whether or not a child has been conceived. Blood and urine pregnancy tests measure hCG levels (human chorionic gonadotropin – a hormone produced by the placenta), which is not present in women who are not, medically speaking, considered to be pregnant – i.e. implantation has not occurred. Because of this, only women who have placenta will test positive for pregnancy. Women who will always test negative for pregnancy are:

  1. Women who have not conceived a child
  2. Women who have conceived a child, but implantation in the uterus has not occurred.

On paper, Section 36 seems to indicate due diligence on the part of the medical staff in determining whether or not conception has occurred, but in reality, a woman who has been raped and is at a hospital taking a pregnancy test 24 hours later will always test negative – even if conception has occurred. “Appropriate testing” will show that the woman is not pregnant and the ‘morning-after pill’ could be administered with the intention of preventing ovulation or fertilization. If the test (which detects implantation) incorrectly indicates the absence of conception, no one but God and the baby would have any idea that such a life had existed.

Section 36 continues:

It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.

As I stated before, it is possible for the ‘morning-after pill’ (and other contraceptives) to avoid being technically considered an abortifacient if it does not cause an abortion. Therefore, a woman who is not pregnant cannot take an abortifacient or any other drug that meets the above distinction. What if the pregnancy test is wrong at detecting conception? This practice of “appropriate testing” seems to be the formulation of invincible ignorance.

Because of the rather vague and non-medically-specific nature of Section 36, many problems could arise, possibly causing the deaths of unknown children. Perhaps it is time for the USCCB to clarify Section 36 in light of ineffective or premature testing, and offer themselves as a guide to the German bishops on the issue.


  1. The German bishops are correct in their theology, just not in their embryology or pharmacology. Effectively non-abortifacient contraceptions may be used in cases of rape to prevent fertilization, but the window of time is so narrow and uncertain, and the drugs so inclined toward being abortifacient, that it is practically immoral in all cases.

    This link explains the theology well for any curious readers, though I disagree with their application of it (they agree with the German bishops):

    • Thd bishops/media representatives are showing false charity; instead of using their spiritual roles to teach and strengthen those in need, they are only catering to our fallen and weak natures. May God and Our Lady guide and protect us.

  2. Sadly this article shows why Bishops’ conferences have no claim on the trust and obedience of faithful Catholics. If something is a sin it is always a sin. The faith of the Church is not the same thing as the pronouncements of a Conference of Bishops.

  3. This is the kind of thing that causes great confusion for our Catholic brothers and sisters. This post explains it clearly and concisely; one wonders why they ever made this pronouncement. Doesn’t the USCCB have access to the most briliant Catholic medical ethicist? Shoddy work doesn’t help the Catholic’s in the pews try and defend our faith. This is dicouraging to say the least!!

  4. Bishops conferences as the Pope has said have no apostolic mandate and are the creation of the last 50 years. Effectively they create nationl churches. This pill is both a contraceptive and abortifacient. Does nature itself or the baby require parental consent to exist…NO
    I cannot see the circumstances of conception negate the intrinsic value of the conceived baby. If that was so we would have to allow the death of those conceived while parent were not fully conscious or involved such as IVF children or those in which one parent or both were not fully awake or able to give consent. The whole notion of consent is murky and subjective. I have a bioethics major and I cannot see the German or US bishops (remember its a majority vote thing) and that is not how it works.

  5. This is very similar to the Peoria Protocol, which was sadly developed under my current bishop, Myers, while he was still in Illinois. It’s a dangerously foolish attempt to reconcile the eternal truth about life with the modern lie about personal choice.

  6. It is very easy to test the woman’s hormones to see where she is in her cycle. (This is the principle of NFP.) If she is will ovulate soon but has not yet, you can use plan B because then plan B will delay ovulation a sufficient amount of time that all the sperm are dead by the time she ovulates. If she has just ovulated, plan B could be aborafacient and can’t be used. If she is elsewhere in her cycle it is irrelevant (since she won’t get pregnant) but you could administer it to calm her psychologically, I guess.

    This is what I got from Fr Gonzalo Miranda, LC who is the Dean of the only Pontifical faculty of bioethics. (He teaches basic bioethics to us in theology too.)

    • I hope people read your comment. This is exactly what I was thinking.

    • From everything I’ve read, the accuracy of this test is questionable, as the hormone (hCG) that indicates pregnancy seems to increase only at implantation, some time after conception at fertilization. Thus, while the bioethical principles are correct, the bishops’ application relies on an inadequate understanding of the medical science, possibly fed to them by doctors with an agenda.

      • I am a religious (future priest) not a scientist. Fr Gonzolo knows medicine way more than I do and I am sure the bishops got someone similar regarding their decision.

        I think however we are talking about two different tests. A test if she was already pregnant would be insufficient (even if it were perfect) as once the egg is released (ovulation) Plan B can be abortafacient. The test before using Plan B would be regarding where she was in her cycle – I don’t know the technical name.

  7. The article ”Making sense of bioethics” may give the wrong impression about testing for ovulation using the ”luteinizing hormone (LH) spike”. The ”spike” takes an average of 32 hours to rise from a baseline to a peak which is 16 hours before ovulation on average. The LH then falls back to the baseline in a day or so, whether or not pregnancy occurs. So pregnancy may result from the rape but cannot be detected from high LH levels but only from HCG levels which may rise from implantation at 5 days or later.  Often the claim that the victim is not pregnant refers to pre-existing pregnancy before the rape because that is the only kind that can be tested for

    • Yes, I agree that the science indicates the morning after pill really shouldn’t be given. My point in posting the link was to show that the error was not theological. Because Humanae Vitae assumes a consensual act, a rape victim most certainly does not have to be open to life prior to fertilization. HV assumes that a contracepting couple does so to separate the unitive and procreative aspects. Rape is not a unitive act at and does not require a procreative aspect. Thus, fertilization may be morally prevented. This German bishops are correct on that, as are the CDF and the Pontifical Academy for Life, which were consulted in their research. The error, as you point out, is a medical and pharmacological one. I don’t think they have been given an accurate understanding of the drug’s effect or the biology involved. In fact, given how the medical community has recently taken to defining pregnancy as beginning at implantation, I think it’s fairly safe to assume there is some real misinformation going around about the science needed for the application of this theological principle.

      In theory, a non-abortifacient contraceptive could be used to prevent pregnancy. In practice, I’m not sure such a thing exists that would be effective enough to be bothered with, while at the same time not causing an abortion.

  8. Good article. Bad Bishops decision. It is clear that a lot of the battle will come down to contraception… ACOG and the deception they created in the 60’s about when pregnancy begins will need to be crushed. Life is life no matter how small. If you had a building that needed demolished, shouldn’t one be absolutely certain no one is inside? In the case of rape, a fertilization may have occurred in 15 minutes. As the article mentioned only God and baby would ever know….. Stop Plan B!!!

    • Thank you, Doctor.

    • Modernity has been trying to use a good (relieve suffering) to commit evil (kill life) for a long time. As a health care professional, I understand the confusion that is found within the lay and medical/bioethical information. But this is a leadership problem: the bishops need to utilize traditional Catholic teachings and people, including PR employees.


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