New York Times Publishes Discredited Arguments About Emergency Contraception

Last week, CVS Caremark, the 7,600-store pharmacy chain, announced it would stop selling tobacco products. CVS took this step in large part because it wants to become more of a health-care provider, and the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products made for some “awkward conversations” with doctors and hospitals, according to various reports. By adding more in-store clinics, CVS may increase access to preventive screening and management of chronic illnesses, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, to many people in need.

In response, the New York Times asked four individuals to write short pieces on “other unhealthy products CVS should stop selling.” And for some reason, they gave one of those four spots to Donna J. Harrison, executive director of the Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who wrote a deeply flawed piece entitled “Dangers of Emergency Contraceptives.” The piece called for—you guessed it—CVS to abandon sales of both Plan B One-Step over the counter and ella by prescription.

It’s a mystery why the Times asked Harrison to write this piece, since it is composed of three outright false claims, all of which have been previously debunked by the New York Times itself.

First, Harrison argues that “the over-the-counter availability of Plan B, and the prescription distribution of Ella, are … incompatible with health care provision.”

Contraception is primary health care, so contrary to Harrison’s assertion, increased access to emergency contraception (EC) is a critical public health intervention. Whether it is intended or unintended, any pregnancy carries far more risk than the use of hormonal contraception; what would be “incompatible with health care provision” would be to force a woman to undergo the risks of an unwanted pregnancy when it could be prevented through access to EC.

As the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) states, the efficacy of EC depends on taking the correct doses within a specified window of time (from 24 to 120 hours) after unprotected intercourse, and the sooner the better. Making it available over-the-counter means it is more accessible to more women who may need it when they need it. And it is safe. A large body of evidence not only underscores the safety and the efficacy of Plan B (from age 11 and up), but fully supports making it available over the counter; ella, which still requires a prescription, is also safe. The New York Times reported on this safety data several times, including in this piece from June 2013. The same month, those points were reiterated on the Timesown editorial page. It seems whomever at the Times invited Harrison to recycle old, discredited, and dangerous arguments failed to read the paper itself.

Harrison further argues that over-the-counter access to EC “isolates the most at-risk women (teenagers and those in unstable relationships) from getting the medical care they need to diagnose sexually transmitted diseases and access appropriate contraceptive counseling.”

This is troubling on several fronts. As noted above, EC has been found unequivocally to be safe and must be taken within a specific period of time for greatest efficacy. Therefore, access is critical. Moreover, studies reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration in its decision to make Plan B One-Step available over the counter have confirmed that young woman ages 11 and older are fully capable of understanding the directions for use. Anyone seeking out emergency contraception has already had unprotected sex, and there is no rolling back the clock. Given the potential real risks, never mind life-changing circumstances, of an unintended pregnancy, denying women access to EC over the counter is like saying you should not use a tourniquet to staunch bleeding on an open wound before you get to a hospital.

Harrison’s concerns about young women getting access to testing and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and contraceptive counseling also ring quite hollow from a purely political perspective. The anti-choice movement has done everything in its power to undermine access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education, to eliminate funding for the very clinics that provide STD counseling and treatment, and to deny young women access to contraceptive counseling and supplies, not to mention access to safe abortion care. The real agenda here is to leave women with no option but to risk pregnancy and carry to term.

Finally, Harrison states, “[I]n certain situations, emergency contraception may act by blocking a newly conceived embryo from implanting, rather than by preventing fertilization.”

The claim that EC acts as an abortifacient has now been completely debunked by solid scientific evidence.

As the Food and Drug Administration notes:

The product contains higher levels of a hormone found in some types of daily use oral hormonal contraceptive pills and works in a similar way to these contraceptive pills by stopping ovulation and therefore preventing pregnancy. [Emphasis added.] Plan B One-Step will not stop a pregnancy when a woman is already pregnant and there is no medical evidence that the product will harm a developing fetus.

The Times reported on these very findings:

But an examination by The New York Times has found that the federally approved labels and medical Web sites do not reflect what the science shows. Studies have not established that emergency contraceptive pills prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the womb, leading scientists say. Rather, the pills delay ovulation, the release of eggs from ovaries that occurs before eggs are fertilized, and some pills also thicken cervical mucus so sperm have trouble swimming.

The Times, therefore, seems to have gone out of its way to publish a commentary that the paper’s own reporting shows is absolutely false on all counts.

This is irresponsible media at its worst. For some reason, mainstream media organizations continue to believe they need to give air time to members of the anti-choice movement even when its assertions are demonstrably false, though it is unclear why. What is clear is that to do so is irresponsible when the information published is full of gross distortions and outright lies, and when public health is at great risk.

I would love to know to what internal standards of quality and factual accuracy the Times holds itself, because those standards are not evident in pieces that spread falsehoods that could materially and adversely affect real lives.

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  • BJ Survivor

    Thank you, Jodi. It’s always a mystery to me that forced-birthers and conservatives are given a podium to outright lie without any refutation of those lies in the “liberal” mainstream media. Whatever happened to actual journalistic ethics?

  • expect_resistance

    “Harrison further argues that over-the-counter access to EC “isolates the most at-risk women (teenagers and those in unstable relationships) from getting the medical care they need to diagnose sexually transmitted diseases and access appropriate contraceptive counseling.”

    Harrison is making the assumption that a teenagers are not seeing a doctor for STD screenings or other preventative health issues. PP offers STD screenings and the antis keep demonizing them. The antis are hypocrites and liars. Harrison has no credibility for her augment.

    • jruwaldt

      Talking about STIs in this context is a definite red herring. In the same way, they’ve essentially argued to ban regular birth-control pills, because they don’t protect against STIs, either.

    • Shan

      “At a stage when their reproductive organs are maturing, these girls will
      be exposed to unknown doses of hormones, for an unknown duration, under
      no medical supervision.”

      Because pregnancy and childbirth are SO much easier on their bodies, right?

  • Jodi Jacobson

    Thank you, Michelle. We wrote her today, and we also sent the same to the editors of Room for Debate, the section of the paper in which this appeared. If you care to help with that, some extra attention on Twitter would probably let them know others are also interested in a response. Margaret Sullvan’s twitter handle is @Sulliview and the other editors are @roomfordebate @PhilipRFD and @ellingwood

    I am sure that the more people are raising the question the more likely it will be to get their attention. Best, Jodi

  • HeilMary1

    Pro-liar Harrison also completely ignored the health risks of Viagra and its abuse by adulterers and pedophiles.

  • terafied

    Unforgiveable. This is an affront to the journalistic standards the NYT used to embrace.

    • goatini

      My paid subscription (paywall baksheesh) that I maintained for years just got cancelled due to credit card data change needed – and I’m not altogether sure I want to renew it. Frank Rich is gone, Bob Herbert is gone, and they’re still catapulting Ross Douchehat and his misogynist Catholic nonsense. Not sure if it’s worth it any more.

      • goatini

        5 days since my subscription expired… and you know what? I really don’t miss the NYT. Sad, I’ve been a reader for over 50 years.

  • lady_black

    They publish this nonsense in my local paper all the time, and I’m sorely tempted to take the editors to task over it.

  • Braddo

    Jodi is right on. Thank You!.
    She should have gone at least one step further. After doing a great job of rebutting the abortifacient canard of EC, we should add “so what if it is?” The harm of artificially rejecting an hours old zygote is a purely theological concern; it is NOT “incompatible with health care” as asserted by Harrison’s piece.

    NYT clearly needs to shore up the fact checking department. And get off the media bandwagon of giving equal time to “both sides” when one side is clearly wrong.

  • RNfromNY

    I agree with stopping the sale of cigarettes. But the logic that EC was targeted as the next worst thing CVS sells: are you kidding me? How about all that beer people drink, and then drive home? How about all the candy bars with the partially-hydrogenated oil that clogs our arteries faster than saturated fat? No, EC is so much worse. God forbid women enjoy consequence-free sex and protect their bodies from the harm that comes from pregnancy.