“EC is not the abortion pill”: a Rhetoric Fail for ellaOne

As a sex educator and counselor, I have given the emergency contraception (EC) spiel many times. There are two important points that must be made. The first is to explain that “the morning after pill,” is a misnomer because EC it works for up to 72 hours after unprotected sex. The second is to make absolutely sure that everyone understands that EC is NOT! THE! ABORTION! PILL!

Differentiating between Plan B (EC) and RU-486 (the abortion pill) was a key component of the strategy to make Plan B available without a prescription, to convince pro-life pharmacists to dispense it, and to reassure women that taking Plan B will prevent pregnancy without terminating or harming an embryo if pregnancy has already occurred. This strategy was effective, and necessary, and is often used to promote EC as the solution to “the abortion problem.”  If everyone had access to EC, women wouldn’t need to have so many abortions, and we can all agree that abortions are the least desirable outcome. Unifying as this strategy can often be, it is problematic.

A form of EC already used in 21 European countries called “ellaOne” is headed to the FDA for U.S. approval and is generating a great deal of controversy. EllaOne works differently than Plan B, and can prevent pregnancy for up to five days. FIVE DAYS.  Like Plan B, ellaOne is more effective the earlier it’s taken, but studies seem to be showing it is still more effective than Plan B.  This is a big deal.

Folks don’t realize that time can be a major barrier to obtaining Plan B, especially for those who live in rural areas, or anywhere that doesn’t have 24 hour pharmacies or Choice-friendly clinics or pharmacists.  Sometimes it can take a day or two to figure out where to get Plan B and negotiate how to get there and how to get the time off from work. The cost of Plan B (around $50) is also a barrier, and it may take a few days to scrape together the money to pay for the pill.  An extra 2 days of effective prevention could make ellaOne a real game-changer.

The problem is that ellaOne may have some chemical similarities to RU-486, the abortion pill.  According to the Washington Post, it is possible that ellaOne could induce an abortion by making the womb inhospitable to an embryo. (Much like what happens during a miscarriage.) But ellaOne (ulipristal acetate) is NOT the same as RU-486 (mifepristone). The differences are explained in this fact sheet.

Regardless, the Pro-Life lobby is well on its way to preventing ellaOne from being approved by the FDA. As Ms. Magazine reminds us, the Pro-Life lobby prevented the FDA from approving Plan B until 1998, when it had already been used in Europe since the 1970s. It took another 8 years of fighting to make Plan B available over the counter for women 18 and up. Plan B was only made available over the counter to 17 year olds in 2009. Getting ellaOne approved by the FDA will be a political battle rather than a medical one. And unfortunately, we have already sabotaged our case with our own anti-abortion rhetoric surrounding EC.

By driving home the distinction between EC and the abortion pill and stressing that EC is acceptable because of this distinction, we have set up ellaOne to fail. If ellaOne does cause “abortions” (or miscarriages, or “spontaneous abortions” just like ones that occur naturally), well, we’re screwed. We played the game of rhetoric, and now we might have to put our foot in our mouths.

I keep putting “abortions” in quotations because it’s important to acknowledge that no one is really sure if ellaOne causes abortion. The reason is not because we don’t understand what the drug does – we do – it’s that there is no consensus on when life begins, so it’s pretty hard to define what is and what isn’t an abortion when we’re talking about fertilized eggs and uterine implantation.  Does life begin with a fertilized egg? Does it begin when that egg implants on the uterine wall?  Does an egg that naturally fails to implant an abortion? A miscarriage? Or just another period? It’s confusing, but the Pro-Life lobby is happy to spin it. By claiming that ellaOne has similarities to the abortion pill, it will be viewed as an abortion pill. And by demonizing the abortion pill as the pro-EC rhetorical strategy has done, we have hurt the case for ellaOne.

In most cases, the people promoting EC are Pro-Choice and actually support RU-486.  From a Pro-Choice, pro-healthcare-access point of view, RU-486 is a good thing. It is a great option and has the potential to make abortion safer and more accessible for many women. It has even been administered via webcam to women in remote locations!

And ellaOne, even if it does sort of cause “abortions,” would be a great product to fill that in-between space – the space between Plan B and abortion. For those truly concerned with reducing the demand for abortion – real, unambiguous abortion – ellaOne is actually a good thing. A really good thing.

Let’s hope that it doesn’t take another 30 years to give American women better control over their own health, bodies, and lives.

A victory for sure, but the fight isn’t over

“It is with mixed emotions that I write with news that, tonight, the House of Representatives passed the health-reform bill.

I am extremely disappointed to tell you that the final package includes the insulting, unworkable Nelson restriction on abortion coverage in the new system.

As you may recall, the Nelson language requires Americans in the new system to write two separate checks if the health plan they choose includes abortion coverage. This unacceptable bureaucratic stigmatization could cause insurance carriers to stop covering abortion care. This would represent a major setback, given that more than 85 percent of private plans cover this care for women today.

Despite this totally unacceptable anti-choice provision, reform will bring more than 30 million Americans into a system that includes affordable family-planning services and maternity care for women. It also outlaws some discriminatory insurance-industry practices that make health care more expensive for women. Improving women’s access to birth control and prenatal care and making reproductive-health care more affordable are also at the core of our mission.

Here at NARAL Pro-Choice America, we struggled with the dilemma of how to respond to a bill that included both positive and disappointing provisions for reproductive health. Ultimately, we determined that we could not endorse this bill due to the abortion-coverage restrictions. But, we also could not, in good conscience, call for the bill’s outright defeat and deny millions of American women the promise of better—although imperfect—health-care services that are an important part of our pro-choice values.

That these abortion-coverage restrictions remained in the bill is terrible news for all of us who believe that American women should not have to sacrifice their right to choose in order to gain ground in other areas of health care. It is an outrage that anti-choice politicians such as Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) used women’s reproductive health as a bargaining chip.

But, believe me when I say that Congress and the White House have not heard the last from us. NARAL Pro-Choice America does not accept this bill as the final word on how abortion coverage will be defined in the new health-care system. We are committed to finding opportunities to repeal dangerous and unacceptable restrictions as the new system takes shape.

Thank you for standing with us for so many months. We will keep fighting to elect pro-choice members who share our pro-choice values.”

Nancy Keenan
President, NARAL Pro-Choice America


Bringing the abortion debate home, or across the street

Today an abortion provider opened her practice across the street from my office. I could see the protesters from the window. Luckily, they all went home for lunch and didn’t bother coming back. Too cold for politics, I guess, or maybe one of the most liberal and Jewish areas in Boston isn’t the best audience for “Jesus loves your baby” signs. The hubub may have been anti-climactic, but today felt very significant for me. I have been an abortion rights activist for years and years, but today the issue came home, or, er, moved in across the street.

I have interacted with the abortion debate in a number of ways. I have participated in activism. I have donated to Pro-Choice organizations and abortion funds. I have voted for Pro-Choice candidates. I have volunteered at Pro-Choice organizations. Hell, I used to dance around my college campus handing out condoms dressed as the “Condom Fairy” (the Tooth Fairy’s second cousin). But what has shaped my conception more than anything is the fact that I have studied the abortion debate in school as a subject of inquiry. As theory.

I have surveyed American attitudes towards abortion from the Colonial period to the Civil War period to the 20th century. I have studied the history of the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life social and political movements. I understand the strategy used by both sides to gain political ground. I know the Roe v. Wade trial inside and out and my dissertation featured Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe herself, as a case study. Not having had an abortion myself,* this all made sense. [*Because I was privileged enough to have the resources to obtain birth control and the education to know how to use it properly. Yes, I know I am damn lucky.]

Today surprised me because today abortion became real. The abortion debate is not a philosophical question of personhood. The abortion debate is not a morality contest. The abortion debate is not a political football, nor is it a case study. The abortion debate is a real, tangible thing and it’s happening outside my window.

I recently found out about a new project called 45 Million Voices. This website will be a safe haven for anyone to share their abortion story — no comments (or judgment) allowed. “The goal is to provide a safe space to listen women into voice.  A space where stigma is eradicated, silence is broken, and honesty prevails through the power of love and support.” I am excited and hopeful about the power of this project. I believe in the power of telling stories and I believe that change can happen when the silenced are given a voice.

Women who have had abortions are silenced by the very nature of the political tug-of-war over abortion that has left us too timid to even speak the “a” word. Not even Focus on the Family, a die-hard player in this battle, could say the word. Even if a woman is Pro-Choice and sure of her decision, she is still shamed into silence. And if she does choose to speak, we are only prepared to hear her story if it fits the familiar and acceptable trope of shame, regret, and penance.

I don’t believe there is anything wrong with studying abortion from an academic perspective. On the contrary, there is much to gain from the approach, especially when one comes to really understand the position of those with whom they disagree. Still, there is something lost when someone is divorced from the physical reality of abortion. An abortion clinic shouldn’t have to open up next door for the issue to hit home. I hope that 45 Million Voices will accomplish for the masses what I felt today. The abortion debate is real, and we will finally be able to connect with that reality through the words of the women who are living it.

Pregnancy plots are easy, writing other choices is hard

With the recent increase in teen pregnancy rates, the hoopla over Lifetime’s The Pregnancy Pact, and the season finale of MTV’s Teen Mom airing tonight, it’s no wonder we all have teen pregnancy on our minds. In TV shows and films that deal with unplanned pregnancy, 99% of the time the woman (or teenager) will keep the baby. It is easy to see this as a glorification of pregnancy and motherhood, particularly teen motherhood. While that may be the agenda of certain parties, I think there is more to it. Namely, pregnancy is a damn easy narrative to write. Writing a story about abortion or adoption is much harder.

Let’s face it, unplanned pregnancy lends itself to story-telling, but only if the woman keeps the baby. Sexy times (exciting beginning) –> unplanned pregnancy (conflict) –> working through the pregnancy and/or relationship (gradual resolution of conflict) –> birth and chubby baby smiles (happy, heartwarming ending).  It’s the classic coming of age story, though for many of us (bad pun alert) it’s more of a coming of rage story.

It’s all right there: the classic beginning-middle-end plot, plus the opportunity for growing baby belly montages.  Lazy writers love to write about the girl who finds herself pregnant, decides to keep the baby, learns a lot about life while she’s pregnant, and then gives birth.  They are especially fond of hospital scenes with 20 people crowding around the happy new mother.  And then fade to black.  What happens after the baby comes home from the hospital, well, that doesn’t fit into the formula.  Neither does abortion or adoption.

Think about it.  How do you write a story about abortion?  It’s hard to imagine a formula because, like life, there is no formula.  The only example of a heartwarming tale about abortion I know of is this amazing short film by Gillian Robespierre.  But there is a reason this is a short film. The abortion narrative has a beginning and an end, but lacks the convenient 9 month period of character development and conflict resolution. Adoption is similarly problematic, although we do see it for one of the teen couples on MTV’s Teen Mom and in the film Juno.

Abortion does not lend itself to romantic comedies, dramas, or even reality TV, and since it’s controversial anyway, the entertainment industry is happy to ignore it.  As much as I would like to accuse the industry of a sinister plot to glorify teen pregnancy, I think the truth is simply that industry folks are lazy and formulaic plots sell.  And, as usual, it’s young women who pay the price.

So close yet so far: abortion in “The Pregnancy Pact”

Yes, I watched premiere of The Pregnancy Pact on Lifetime, the network for women who like romance novels and eat yogurt.  I heard about The Pregnancy Pact because I watch Project Runway, which is now hosted on Lifetime (why, Bravo, why?) and am thus exposed to ads for Lifetime programming.  The Pregnancy Pact is based on the story of an alleged “pregnancy pact”  in Gloucester, MA, in which a group of pregnant teenage girls were thought to have made a pact to get pregnant together, on purpose.  This allegation turned out to be false.  The truth was that the pregnancies were accidental; the “pact” was their promise to raise their babies together.  I don’t  imagine many people will find a spoiler alert necessary for such a formulaic and predictable (Lifetime!) movie, but just in case, know that I will be revealing plot points in this post.

I was intrigued by the movie because I am generally interested in representations of teen pregnancy in pop culture, but also because of the controversy generated over the fact that the movie misrepresents what really happened in Gloucester.  In the movie, the girls DO make a pact to get pregnant together, ostensibly because they a) think babies are cute and not that hard to raise, and b) want their boyfriends to have to stay with them forever.  Yes, the old “women are all secretly trying to trap men by getting preggers” tale.  Coincidentally, a new study shows that men are guilty of this as well.  Out of 1,300 teen girls and young women, 25% reported “pregnancy coercion,” while 15% said they’d suffered from “birth control sabotage” from their male partners.  But hell, Lifetime has no problem perpetuating this myth of the baby-crazy, man-trapping woman — or in Lifetime’s case — 15 year old girl.

I was pleased to see that the movie did provide a somewhat nuanced (this is Lifetime, remember) position on birth control.  A scene at a school committee meeting framed both sides of the debate early on.  At the end of the film, both sides seemed to have come to a better understanding of the other.  The abstinence-only mother realizes that even though she does not want her own daughter using birth control, other parents are okay with it and therefore  it should be made available to high school students.  The uber liberal blogger (played by Thora Birch) realizes that teen pregnancy wont be solved by throwing condoms at the problem.  The pro-abstinence folks realize that they need to be more honest (aka sharing their own youthful indescretions) so that kids will feel more comfortable talking to them about their “urges.”  And the pro-condoms side realizes that teen pregnancy prevention needs to include more than just safer sex education; it should also teach young girls about all the fabulous things they can do other than get married and have a baby, like for example, college.

The real problem with The Pregnancy Pact is neither its historical inaccuracy nor its position on contraception; it’s its portrayal of abortion. To my surprise, we learn that the uber liberal blogger character had an abortion when she got pregnant in high school.  I was quite impressed to see a likeable character on mainstream television who had had an abortion.  But then, in a SHOCKING TWIST, she didn’t really have an abortion after all!  She actually gave the baby up for adoption and lied about it to her boyfriend, because he was a super duper sweetheart who wanted her to keep the baby.

Thora Birch’s character admits the truth about her false abortion to her ex-boyfriend (now the VP of the Gloucester High School) in a maddening scene.  She explains that it was too late to get the abortion, so she opted for adoption instead.  The dreamy ex-bf is relieved — a relief the audience is expected to share.  “Oh phew, she didn’t actually have an abortion so now we can like and respect her.”  The ex-bf says something like, “I really didn’t want to believe you were that kind of person,” (that kind of person?) and she replies, “I almost was.”  Is she trying to remind him that she would have had the abortion if she could have, and would still make that choice?  Or,  is she agreeing that all would have been lost if she had gone through with the abortion?  It was unclear to me what that line meant, and I wonder if it was deliberately left ambiguous.

Lifetime came so close to creating a moral, likeable character who chose abortion and did not regret it, but they chickened out.  Is it really so hard to imagine that an American audience (of women) could accept a woman with a history of abortion?  Is it really still a “scarlet A situation” when almost everyone knows a woman who has had an abortion?  Do we really need to pound out the message that it’s only ok to have an abortion if you feel really, really bad about it and totes regret it afterward?  Recently, Heidi Fleiss made headlines when she not only admitted that she had chosen abortion, but also that she was happy with her choice.  (There is a great post about this at Feministing.)  But do we ever see examples of this in mainstream film or television?  Are there any role models teaching young girls that it is okay to have an abortion, and not only that, but it is okay to NOT be racked with guilt or shame about it?

Perhaps it was foolish to hope that Lifetime, a network that capitalizes on old-fashioned tropes and stereotypes about women and what they want out of life (marriage, babies, and melodrama), would be the first to put forth a moral and likeable character who has had an abortion, and doesn’t regret it.  Still, they came close, and I guess that’s something.

Go ahead, watch The Pregnancy Pact.  Just say it’s “research” if anyone asks.  I would love to know what you think.

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