Next Year’s Cultural Wedge Issue: Emergency Contraception

Now that the Federal Drug Administration has decided to make emergency contraception (the so-called “morning after pill”) available over the counter, the controversy will migrate to the states as local legislators consider local restrictions. As a happily and monogomously married guy who has been surgically “fixed” after having three children, I’ll concede that emergency contraception is not something I spend a lot of time thinking about. But I found out last night that it’s an issue that animates many politically active women — including many Republican women.

My neighbor Barbara Rose opened up her home to a constituents’ meeting with Del. John M. O’Bannon, R-Henrico, who happens to be the only physician serving in the General Assembly. In attendance were some two dozen people. Most were women — the handful of men either were curious neighbors or were tagging along in support of wives/girlfriends. As John Rose said during a round of introductions, “I come with the house.”

The issue was emergency contraception. Mira Signer, director of statewide organizing for Planned Parenthood, explained that she anticipated a legislative backlash to the FDA ruling, and she was hoping that O’Bannon, a perceived moderate, would help find a middle-of-the-road position acceptable to a broad cross-section of the Virginia population. She proposed a “Birth Control Protection Act,” which “provides that the federal Food and Drug Administration approved methods of birth control are not subject to or governed by the abortion law set forth in Title 18.2.”

Specifically, the reproductive rights crowd is worried that the General Assembly may move to limit Emergency Contraception by (a) restricting access to teens without parental consent, and (b) allowing pharmacists to refuse to dispense the drug.

In all likelihood, the Emergency Contraception issue will get embroiled in the ongoing abortion debate. If I understand the debate correctly, it boils down to an essentially theological question regarding at what point “pregnancy” begins. If you think the pregnancy begins when a sperm fertilizes an egg, then the Emergency Contraception drug (the same drug, in larger doses, as the “pill”) amounts to an abortion pill. If you believe that pregnancy begins when the fertilized egg attaches itself to the uterus, a process that the drug in question prevents, then you regard it as contraception.

Personally, I have huge reservations about late-term abortions. I’ve seen babies in neo-natal units surviving birth after a mere six-seven months gestation. Aborting a foetus/baby at that stage is uncomfortably akin to murder, acceptable only if the mother’s life is in danger. At the other end of the spectrum, a free-floating fertilized egg is not a baby or anything remotely resembling a baby. It does not have a heart or a brain. It is insensate. Fertilized eggs are created by the thousands in fertility clinics and disposed of, without fanfare, when no longer needed. If we restrict Emergency Contraception on the grounds that it equates to abortion, then we need to question the morality of the life-creating fertility industry.

O’Bannon did not give his female constituents the answer they hoped to hear. He was not prepared at this time to endorse the Birth Control Protection Act. And he also indicated that he had reservations about forcing pharmacists to dispense the drug against their individual conscience. But he didn’t wave the women off either — he promised to continue listening to them as the debate unfolded. Although he anticipated that the issue would quickly polarize along party lines, he vowed to keep an open mind.

He did vote against a previous bill, O’Bannon reminded the audience, that would have mandated parental notification when minors received services for contraception, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases at public health facilities. He had heard too many stories — some from women in the audience — of how parental notification discouraged children from getting treatment they needed.

If this meeting is any indication, Emergency Contraception is shaping up as the cultural wedge issue of the 2007 session of the General Assembly.

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One response to “Next Year’s Cultural Wedge Issue: Emergency Contraception”

  1. Mira Signer Avatar
    Mira Signer

    Thanks for the post on the meeting. Legislators like Delegate O’Bannon need to step it up on common-sense, common-ground issues like Emergency Contraception. His constituents are counting on him for this – and not to unnecessarily pander to the far-right. That doesn’t seem to be in his interest, given the changing demographics of his district.

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