A clarification on the meaning of abortifacient
Letter to the Editor | Monday, February 19, 2018
In a letter to the editor titled “Condoms and contraceptive coverage,” three of my fellow students addressed Fr. John Jenkins’s recent letter to the Notre Dame community regarding contraceptive coverage by the University. The authors of the letter made the claim that “There is no such thing as an abortifacient contraceptive.” There are two possible interpretations of this claim, the first being that you cannot prevent conception by aborting the embryo that results from conception. Technically that’s true, but it’s just like saying I cannot prevent a fire from igniting by putting out the already-ignited fire. The second possible interpretation to the claim, the one I think the authors meant to convey, is that there is no contraceptive drug that can (if it fails to prevent conception in the first place) act to interrupt a pregnancy. I find this statement to be (perhaps unintentionally) misleading. The authors make their claim based on the fact that “The medical definition of pregnancy necessitates that a fertilized egg be implanted in the woman’s uterus.” Does that make their claim true? Technically yes, but with a significant caveat — the life of the human individual starts days before the pregnancy “officially” begins.
It is a scientific fact that a new human being is formed when an egg is fertilized. Most people will remember from middle school biology that this takes place in the fallopian tube, after which the newly-formed embryo will, over the course of a few days, travel down to the uterus and implant itself in the uterine lining. If the embryo fails to implant, it will die; if the embryo successfully implants, it will receive nourishment from the mother and continue to develop. This might be when the pregnancy “officially” starts, but it most certainly is not when the life of that human being began.
The term abortifacient can be confusing — mostly because the medical definition of pregnancy itself is confusing. But what should be pretty clear is that when used in the context of Fr. Jenkins’s letter, Catholic teaching and even the overall pro-life movement, “abortifacient” means a drug that destroys a human life that has already begun. The pro-life mission is to protect life from conception to natural death, not to protect life from implantation to natural death. This also addresses the authors’ claim that “more than two thirds of all fertilized eggs naturally fail to implant.” Naturally failing to implant as an embryo constitutes a natural cause of death. When a drug acts as an abortifacient by preventing implantation, it is preventing the implantation of an embryo that will otherwise succeed to implant, constituting an unnatural cause of death brought on by the use of the abortifacient drug. This constitutes, as Fr. Jenkins said, “the destruction of innocent human life.”
The objective of this letter is not to debate the morality of the destruction of an embryo that will otherwise thrive and develop. I will leave that task to wiser and better authors. My objective here is simply to clarify what is meant by abortifacient. So to conclude, consider that in their letter the authors themselves say the drugs in question can work by “thinning the uterine lining to make implantation more difficult.” I hope that I have clarified that that is exactly what people mean when they use the word abortifacient. That is exactly why the drugs in question are “abortifacient contraceptives.” While they may sometimes work to prevent a new life from forming (by preventing conception), there is also the possibility the unwanted human life has already come to be and the use of the drug will result in its death.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.