Magazine article Insight on the News

Women's Groups 'Out' Emergency Contraception

Magazine article Insight on the News

Women's Groups 'Out' Emergency Contraception

Article excerpt

Most Americans are unaware of a legal contraceptive that can be used up to three days after sex to prevent pregnancy - a little-known emergency method some call America's best-kept secret.

Every day for more than three decades, millions of women have swallowed birth-control pills to prevent pregnancy. Worldwide and domestically, women also have take them in higher dosages as "emergency contraception pills," or ECPs, after engaging in unprotected sex. A surprisingly high number of U.S. doctors family-planning clinics and college health centers have been administering ECPs for 20 years.

Women who fear they could become pregnant simply swallow two tablets - usually usually Ovral, manufactured by Wyeth-Aherst, which contain the hormones estrogen and progesterone - within within 72 hours after intercourse, an another two pills 12 hours later. "In this concentrated form, Ovral can either prevent the fertilization of a woman's egg or prevent a fertilized egg from implanting itself on the wall of the uterus and developing into an embryo," Karren Nichols, spokeswoman for American Medical Women's Association. Emergency contraception lowers a woman's chance of becoming pregnant by about 75 percent.

Because it works either right before or after the egg is fertilized but before implantation, most health officials quality ECPs as a true contraceptive and not an abortifacient. "The real question here is one's definition of the beginning of pregnancy," says Cindy arson, program director for the Women's Health Network. "If you talk to any medical group, they will tell you they formally define pregnancy as the implantation of the fertilized egg into the uterus."

On the other hand, antiabortion groups believe that any post-intercourse treatment qualifies as an abortion. "Doctors who are saying that this is not an abortion are not being scientifically rational says Judie Brown, president of the American Life League. "Every embryonic textbook in the U.S. states life begins at conception - when the egg is fertilized."

Brown notes that with a Republican Congress and a conservative political climate sweeping the country, women's groups fear the Food and Drug Administration will not approve RU-486, which has been used in clinical trials in the United States since October. Often called the French abortion pill, RU-486 can be administered five to 10 weeks after a woman engages in unprotected sex to dislodge an implanted egg.

ECPs provide another alternative - one that Brown believes is driven by greed. "Money is the driving force behind this movement [to approve ECPs] she says. "Pharmaceutical companies stand a chance of making quite a bit of money on these instant abortions."

Meanwhile, the public remains relatively unaware of ECPs, primarily because no company has applied to the FDA to market emergency contraceptives. "Without FDA approval, manufacturers cannot advertise these products for postcoital use," says Nichols, "so the normal education function of drug promotion is lost."

Gaining FDA approval for supplemental use of a previously approved drug can cost tens of millions of dollars and take up to five years. Recouping this cost would be difficult with sales of only four pills for onetime use. Once the patent expired, other companies could sell the same preparation.

"We are currently encouraging [pharmaceutical companies] to submit applications for approval of Ovral for use as a morning-after pill," says FDA spokeswoman Susan Cruzan, who acknowledges that doctors can legally prescribe drugs for nonlabeled purposes. …

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