November 2007. The “morning-after” pill, also known as “Plan B,” is often provided in hospital emergency rooms to women who have been sexually assaulted. It is typically used within 72 hours of the rape, and appears to prevent pregnancy in one of two ways. First, it can prevent ovulation (the release of an egg from a woman’s ovary), and for this reason, it is commonly termed “emergency contraception.” While this action of blocking the release of an egg is the most likely mechanism by which it routinely prevents pregnancy, another mechanism may also be operative under certain circumstances.
This second mechanism of action involves altering the lining of the uterus so it becomes less hospitable to the arrival of an embryo from the fallopian tube. In other words, if an egg has already been released from the ovary, and it has been successfully fertilized, the morning-after pill may be able to prevent that arriving embryo from implanting into the uterine wall.
Controversy exists as to the likelihood and frequency of this second mechanism of action, but even the Food and Drug Administration (the agency which gives official approval for the use of the drug) acknowledges the possibility on its website: “Plan B may also work by... preventing attachment (implantation) to the uterus (womb).” The package insert for the drug from the manufacturer (Barr Pharmaceuticals) uses identical language when explaining how Plan B works.
Significant ethical concerns are raised by this second mechanism, namely that “emergency contraception” may actually work as “emergency abortion” as well. When these ethical concerns are coupled with new state laws (notably in Connecticut and Massachusetts) mandating that the morning-after pill be provided by hospitals to all victims of sexual assault who request it, it becomes clear that medical professionals may have to confront situations of dramatic conscience violations because of this immoral form of legislative coercion by the state.
Some have argued that it may be immoral for Catholics to provide any contraceptive measures at all to a woman who has been raped. Such a view is incorrect, however, because a woman who has been sexually assaulted is clearly entitled to protect herself from the attacker’s sperm. The Church teaches that rape is not a unitive act that requires openness to procreation. It is rather an act of violence against another person, and the woman is allowed to take steps to prevent the possible fertilization of her own egg(s). It is permissible, then, for Catholic hospitals to provide their patients with morning-after pills if the following four conditions are met: