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The Emergency-Contraception Superstition

What do you call it when someone believes something in spite of the evidence?

As Nancy already noted, NYC high schools are giving out emergency contraception without the consent or even knowledge of the parents. Their justification is that “emergency contraception reduces pregnancy and abortion.” It sounds reasonable, but it turns out not to be true. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops in-house researcher summarized the results of numerous studies in this fact sheet. “According to every one of the 23 studies from 10 countries, published between 1998 and 2006, easier access to EC fails to achieve any statistically significant reduction in rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion.”


Here is a sampling of conclusions from some of these studies:

  • “It is possible that the effect of increased access on pregnancy rates is truly negligible because EC is not as effective as found in the single-use clinical trials, or because women at highest risk do not use EC frequently enough or at all.” — a 2005 study of 2,000 women in the San Francisco Bay area. 

  •  “This study adds to the growing literature casting doubt on the increased use of EC as a quick fix for rising abortion rates. That is not to say that EC will not prevent pregnancy for some women, sometimes, but rather that it may not make much difference to public health.” — a 2005 study of 2,000 postpartum women in Shanghai, China (who would have a strong incentive not to become pregnant within a year of giving birth because this is forbidden by the government).

  • “The EBC [emergency birth control] scheme had no impact on conception rates.” However, “the presence of a pharmacy EBC scheme in a local authority is associated with an increase in the rate of STI diagnoses amongst teenagers of about 5%. The equivalent figure for [children under-16] is even larger at 12%.” This “is consistent with the hypothesis that greater access to EBC induces an increase in adolescent risky sexual behavior.” — a 2011 study in England.

A superstition is something we believe in spite of the evidence, because we like the way it makes us feel. I will leave it to the reader to decide who is being reasonable and who is being superstitious with respect to this issue.

— Jennifer Roback Morse, is the founder and president of the Ruth Institute, which promotes an understanding of lifelong married love to college students. Sign up for the Ruth Institute’s free newsletter here

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