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:
- Women who have not conceived a child
- 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.