Plan B Manufacturer Admits Morning After Pill Can Cause Death of an Embryo

Thu Sep 7, 2006 - 12:15 pm EST

Special to by Prof. Richard Stith, PhD

Recent publicity concerning Plan B has been seriously misleading. The Plan B morning-after pill has been referred to as “contraception,” even though it may act after fertilization to cause the death of a human embryo. This is an important mistake because, whatever one’s judgment on abortion may be, I think we all agree that no woman should be misled into doing what she would consider to be taking a life without realizing that she is doing so.

  There has been a shameful disinformation campaign on Plan B for years, and the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has failed to demand candor. Perhaps the simplest way to discern the truth is to look very carefully at the manufacturer’s own “information” for consumers, found on its website at

How does Plan B work (mechanism of action)?
  Plan B is believed to act as an emergency contraceptive principally by preventing ovulation or fertilization (by altering tubal transport of sperm and/or ova). In addition, it may inhibit implantation by altering the endometrium. Plan B is not effective if a woman is pregnant. Plan B is a contraceptive and cannot terminate an established pregnancy.

Will Plan B harm an unborn fetus?
  There is no evidence that Plan B would harm a pregnant woman or a developing fetus if the product were accidentally taken during early pregnancy…. Plan B is not an abortifacient. It is an emergency contraceptive and should not be confused with RU486 or any other abortifacient.

  Note that the manufacturer claims that Plan B is “contraceptive”, “not effective if a woman is pregnant”, will not “harm an unborn fetus,” and “is not an abortifacient.” Sure sounds like it doesn’t destroy an unborn human life, and that’s the message swallowed and spread by the media.

  However, note also that the drug maker admits that Plan B “may inhibit implantation by altering the endometrium [i.e. the lining of the womb].” In other words, Plan B may cause a newly-conceived embryo to die (and be expelled) because it cannot implant itself in the lining of the womb. For this reason, some South American courts have found the Plan B drug to violate an unborn child’s constitutionally-guaranteed right to life.

  In light of the manufacturer’s own admission, its other statements above may at first seem to be flat-out lies. But careful analysis reveals them to be deeply misleading rather than flatly false. Although many people (e.g. the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin) use the word “fetus” to refer to an unborn child at any stage of development, in medicine a developing human life is usually called an “embryo” rather than a “fetus” prior to implantation in the mother’s womb. The statement that Plan B does not “harm an unborn fetus” is true if we use this technical medical definition of “fetus,” even though it may be misleading for those of us who don’t distinguish fetuses from embryos.

  But if Plan B may work post-fertilization, may cause the death of a newly-conceived human embryo, how can the drug maker say that the pill is only a “contraceptive,” is “not effective if a woman is pregnant,” and “is not an abortifacient”? The short answer is that the manufacturer appears to rely on recent (and perhaps politically motivated) redefinitions of conception, pregnancy, and abortion: According to the new definitions, “conception” and “pregnancy” begin at implantation rather than at fertilization, and “abortion” means the termination of a post-implantation “pregnancy.” The drug makers can claim, rightly, that their statements are true under these new definitions.

  One large problem is that the lay readers of the drug information packet are not told up front that these special new definitions are being used. Thus this “information” is quite unfair and misleading to average men and women who may remember from high school biology that fertilization and conception meant the same thing and that fertilization marked the beginning of pregnancy.

  Moreover, the drug maker’s insistence that Plan B does not terminate a pregnancy is a red herring to begin with. Nobody has any qualms about terminating pregnancies per se. After all, that’s what birth itself does! What pro-life women and men don’t want to do is to have an “abortion” in the ordinary sense of terminating LIFE. When the drug maker tells them not to worry because they are not terminating a pregnancy, they may conclude incorrectly that Plan B cannot cause the death of their unborn child. When they find out too late that they were misled and may have taken the lives of their own children, they may be devastated. And the drug maker, the media, and the FDA will be responsible.

  In making this potentially lethal pill more easily available, the FDA should at least have required the drug maker to come clean, to say prominently on its label something like “WARNING: THIS DRUG MAY CAUSE THE DEATH OF AN EMBRYO.” Its users would then be able to exercise informed consent about whether to take a chance on destroying a developing human life.


  Richard Stith J.D.(Yale), Ph.D.(Yale) is a Professor of Law at Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana

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