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The protest-ridden confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh moved into their final day Friday, but many remained focused on his comments 24 hours earlier — specifically, his characterization of birth control pills.
During the hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz asked Kavanaugh about his dissent in a case that involved Priests for Life, a religious group that fought an Affordable Care Act regulation requiring many employers to provide free insurance coverage for birth control to female employees. In the case, Priests for Life objected to an offer by the Obama administration that would allow them to get a waiver by filling out a form, according to the New York Times.
“They said filling out the form would make them complicit in the provision of the abortion-inducing drugs that they were as a religious matter objecting to,” Kavanaugh said.
Soon after, Twitter erupted with lawmakers, doctors, and feminists calling his classification of birth control pills as “abortion-inducing drugs” to be misinformed, reckless, and pseudoscience.
Kavanaugh isn’t the first person to compare birth control pills to abortion: A number of conservative organizations also refer to the Pill as an “abortifacient,” meaning a medication that will induce an abortion. But that’s not based in science, says women’s health expert Jessica Shepherd, MD, an ob-gyn and founder of HerViewPoint. “Abortion is when you cause a fertilized egg to be passed,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The reason why birth control pills can’t be abortifacient is because there is no fertilization in the first place.”
Women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, agrees. “Contraception is not abortion,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Abortion ends a pregnancy; contraception prevents it from occurring in the first place.”
Lauren Streicher, MD, a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that Kavanaugh’s comments are “very scary.” “An abortifacient disrupts an established pregnancy; contraception prevents pregnancy from occurring. To confuse the two is just scientifically wrong,” she says.
Birth control pills work to prevent an unintended pregnancy on several levels. During a woman’s menstrual cycle, most women will ovulate once a month, Shepherd explains. The egg is released and travels down the fallopian tubes, where fertilization can occur. “Birth control pills do multiple things, but the primary effect is to suppress ovulation,” Shepherd says. “When there’s no ovulation, there’s no egg traveling down the fallopian tubes and no egg to be fertilized.”
When a woman isn’t on the Pill, her cervical mucus tends to become thin during ovulation to help sperm reach an egg, Wider says. But birth control pills “change the consistency of the cervical mucus, making it much harder for the sperm to travel to find the egg for fertilization,” she says.
Finally, when a woman isn’t on the Pill, her endometrial lining (i.e., the lining of her uterus) will thicken after ovulation to allow a fertilized egg to implant. “Birth control pills keep the lining from being thick, which wouldn’t allow for implantation if there was one,” Shepherd says. “But because the primary effect is suppressed ovulation, there shouldn’t be a fertilized egg to implant in the first place.”
Some conservatives will claim that the thinning of the endometrial lining could cause an abortion, but this is incorrect, Streicher says. “First of all, it is extraordinarily unlikely that fertilization will occur when a woman is on the Pill,” she says. “Even if it did, 50 percent of fertilized eggs never implant. It’s not like every single time an egg gets fertilized, you have a baby nine months later.”
“But it’s not a pregnancy until the fertilized egg implants and starts to grow and divide,” she continues. “These people are just coming up with their own definitions.”
Ultimately, calling the Pill an “abortion-inducing drug” is just flat-out wrong, Shepherd says. “It is absolutely not an abortifacient,” she says.
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