With global overpopulation among the most critical problems of the 21st century, news of a highly effective contraceptive becoming available in the U.S. would seem very good news indeed. But as health writer Rob Stein reports in the Washington Post, it may not happen:
A French drug company is seeking to offer American women something their European counterparts already have: a pill that works long after “the morning after.”
The drug, dubbed ella, would be sold as a contraceptive — one that could prevent pregnancy for as many as five days after unprotected sex. But the new drug is a close chemical relative of the abortion pill RU-486, raising the possibility that it could also induce abortion by making the womb inhospitable for an embryo.
Plan B (the last emergency contraceptive vetted by the FDA), which works for up to 72 hours after sex, was eventually approved for sale without a prescription, although a doctor’s order is required for girls younger than 17. The new drug promises to extend that period to at least 120 hours. Approved in Europe last year, ella is available as an emergency contraceptive in at least 22 countries.
“With ulipristal (ella), women will be enticed to buy a poorly tested abortion drug, unaware of its medical risks, under the guise that it’s a morning-after pill,” said Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America, which led the battle against Plan B.
Plan B prevents a pregnancy by administering high doses of a hormone that mimics progesterone. It works primarily by inhibiting the ovaries from producing eggs. Critics argue it can also prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb, which some consider equivalent to an abortion.
Ella works as a contraceptive by blocking progesterone’s activity, which delays the ovaries from producing an egg. RU-486, too, blocks the action of progesterone, which is also needed to prepare the womb to accept a fertilized egg and to nurture a developing embryo. That’s how RU-486 can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting and dislodge growing embryos. Ella’s chemical similarity raises the possibility that it might do the same thing, perhaps if taken at elevated doses. But no one knows for sure because the drug has never been tested that way. Opponents of the drug are convinced it will. “It kills embryos, just like the abortion pill,” said Donna Harrison, president of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
A federal panel will convene this week to consider endorsing the drug. Those favoring approval are worried that the ambiguous sentiments, and the power of abortion foes who seem poised to weigh in against it, will influence the outcome.
“FDA should be a ‘Just the facts ma’am’ organization,” said Susan F. Wood, an associate professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services who resigned from the FDA to protest delays in making Plan B more accessible. “I’m hoping the FDA will take that position.”
There is an great unmet need out there for emergency contraception that is effective as this for so long,” said Erin Gainer, chief executive of HRA Pharma of Paris. Studies involving more than 4,500 women in the United States and Europe show that ella is safe, producing minor side effects including headaches, nausea and fatigue, she said.
The company has no plans to test ella as an abortion drug, but it did not appear to cause any problems for the handful of women who have become pregnant after taking the drug, she said.
“The people who are opposing this are not just opposed to abortion,” said Amy Allina, program director at the National Women’s Health Network. “They also opposed contraception and they are trying to confuse the issue.”
Back to the issue: the planet has a finite amount of space for human beings. When one human being (and often two human beings acting as one) seeks not to add an unwanted human being, would it not make sense to furnish all available safe, legal tools to assist in that humanitarian effort?
Stay tuned for the answer from the FDA.