CT article says the “Pill” is potentially abortifacient

Christianity Today continues its controversial series on contraception. Yesterday, it was a post from Rachel Marie Stone repristinating the legacy of racist eugenicist Margaret Sanger. Today’s contribution comes from a physician giving an overview of the different types of contraceptive devices that Christians have to choose from. What caught my eye in this article is that the author admits that the destruction of a fertilized egg is a potential mechanism of action for at least three of the five methods she lists: (1) the “Pill,” (2) IUD’s, and (3) emergency contraception.

If you read my book, you know that I do not hold the Roman Catholic view that all contraception is unethical. So I am not coming at this as someone who is in principle opposed to all contraception.

Having said that, this article is a bit of a bombshell. Taken at face value, it argues that one of the most commonly used methods of contraception—one that is routinely used by many pro-life evangelicals—is at least potentially abortifacient. If she is correct, that clarifies the moral calculus on the use of these technologies. If she is correct, users of the “Pill” would have to sign-off morally on potential destruction of human life. In other words, her argument would make the use of these technologies incompatible with biblical teaching on the sanctity of every human life.

Her point about the abortifacient effect of the “Pill” is disputed in the wider literature, but this author does not engage that dispute. She simply notes that the destruction of human embryos is possible and that Christians have to figure out which methods fit “within a Biblical world view.” But there is not much figuring out to do if you accept the proposition that these devices potentially end a human life. The moral conclusion is really clear.

After a brief survey of both sides of the issue, here’s how I come down in Chapter 5 of my book:

I see value and merit in the arguments that are made on both sides of this debate. Both sides have proponents who are committed to the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. Yet the poles of this debate are not two diametrically opposed positions. On one side are those who argue conclusively that the Pill causes abortions. On the other side are those who say the evidence is inconclusive. It seems that, at best, the case in favor of the Pill has yet to be proven. In light of this, Andreas Köstenberger’s conclusion with respect to the Pill seems warranted: “If the ‘profound respect for life in the prenatal stages’ of a child’s development . . . holds the moral authority it ought to, then perhaps it is right to reevaluate whether a low chance of aborting one’s child is worth the risk at all.” In the absence of more definitive proof, I conclude that it is not worth the risk.

What Is the Meaning of Sex, p. 151


  • ian Shaw

    Sounds like CT is continuing the trend it’s been on for years now and continues to write articles for views/web hits. There’s a reason I don’t read it. It just keep becoming more self evident as time goes by.

  • Joe Fleener


    Have you read:

    Alcorn, Randy C. Does the Birth Control Pill Cause Abortions? Sandy, OR: Eternal Perspective Ministries, 2011. (first published in 1997)

    Alcorn, essentially demonstrated what this CT author is suggesting, only 18 years ago.

    It’s unfortunate that too many Evangelicals have been unfamiliar with this book.

  • James Stanton

    “Taken at face value, it argues that one of the most commonly used methods of contraception—one that is routinely used by many pro-life evangelicals—is at least potentially abortifacient.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong but weren’t the drugs at issue in the Hobby Lobby case “potentially abortifacient”? There’s also the issue of certain FDA labels that are controversial.

    My point is that the controversy alone makes it easier for activists to label these contraceptives as abortifacients even if that’s not generally the case. It’s the potential for even 1 out of 100. Thus the line for what might be considered effective use of contraception and an abortion might come down to a matter of days or hours. I think Denny is probably closer to the Catholic position than he claims and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • Lynn B.

    I did not know this was still a debated issue among honest people, the PDR is quite clear as is the prescribing info on birth control pills.

    The medical community has for all practical purposes redefined conception to mean implantation and not fertilization of the egg which keeps the truth “under wraps” so to speak when a woman is speaking to her doctor.

    From Randy Alcorn who years ago researched this topic thoroughly:

    “The Pill is used by about fourteen million American women each year and sixty million women internationally. Thus, even an infinitesimally low portion (say one-hundredth of one percent) of 780 million Pill cycles per year globally could represent tens of thousands of unborn children lost to this form of chemical abortion annually. How many young lives have to be jeopardized for prolife believers to question the ethics of using the Pill? This is an issue with profound moral implications for those believing we are called to protect the lives of children.”

    Read more:

    • Chris Ryan

      The medical community has always defined pregnancy to mean implantation and not conception. That’s why we have the term zygotes. If we counted zygotes as pregnancies then we’d have to say that women miscarry potentially hundreds of times during their lifetime. It would make no sense. The ‘life begins at conception’ myth didn’t start until Reagan became president. Even we as evangelicals didn’t believe it prior to then.

      • Lynn B.

        Chris: I do not believe that you area correct that the medical community has always defined pregnancy to mean implantation…

        Per Dr. Jack Willke: “In the early 1960’s, officials from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology teamed up with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and they simply redefined the word “conception.” They said it would no longer be the time of union of sperm and ovum, but rather would be the time, one week later, when this new human plants inside the lining of the mother’s womb. “Fertilization” would still be the word used for the time of union of sperm and ovum. The interesting thing was though that no one knew of this change except an inner circle of medical and drug people. And so what has happened? Well, just what they planned.

        “Today a physician can truthfully call the IUD a “contraceptive,” and mean that it prevents implantation in the wall of the uterus, while his patient, hearing him use the word, “contraception,” will understand it to mean “the prevention of the union of sperm and ovum.” And so, presto! An abortifacient is called a “contraceptive,” and everybody is fooled. A classic example of double speak, or the perversion of language.

        “That slight of hand definition change happened 30 years ago. Today only a few physicians know that many so-called contraceptives really act as abortifacients.”

  • Lynn B.

    Here is another great source for medical info on this topic, Life Issues Institute, Inc. This is the organization founded by the late Dr. Jack Willke, one of the founders of today’s Right to Life Movement. I read an analysis of his years ago that indicated the average woman taking the birth control pill has a spontaneous abortion once every two to four years. Sobering.

  • Ellen Nicholas

    Because of my fairly unique medical history, I’ve done my research on this topic. It seems to me that if a woman is faithful about taking the lo-dose pill at the same time every day, on every day that it’s supposed to be taken, the chances are nearly zero that an egg will be fertilized. If the woman is haphazard, skipping one day, doubling up the next, varying the time of day…chances are greater – setting up for a medically induced abortion. A conscientious woman can take “the Pill” with a clear conscience…

    • John Kreiner

      “it seems to me” “the chances are nearly zero”. I’m not sure that’s good enough to guarantee a Christian who acknowledges what’s at stake here a clear conscience. If someone gave me some pills or supplements to treat me, and they said “it seems to me that there’s a nearly zero percent chance that this will kill you” I think that (if my life wasn’t already in danger) I would pass on them.

      Not to mention that a Christian woman doesn’t take it in a vacuum, and however “conscientious” she is, her example could lead someone who’s less consistent in taking them correctly to have a greater chance of that happening.

  • Paul Reed

    There’s a huge practical problem with claiming that the pill causes abortions. Use of the pill is very widespread, and if the pill causes abortions, then abortions are extremely commonplace. And if a vice is perceived as commonplace, it loses a great deal of its stigma. So that’s a problem. And this also raises the question of unborn children that are miscarried naturally, and the woman does not even know. Should these type of natural miscarriages be considered a national emergency, like it would be if 5-year olds were suddenly dying in large amounts?

    • Brian Sanders

      Paul Reed: A natural miscarriage is altogether a different thing. Although you are correct that a commonplace vice loses some of its stigma, is that reason for a Christian to participate in the vice and/or to remain silent and thus encourage others to participate unknowingly? Your logic is not logical in any biblical sense of the word.

      Some have suggested that we cannot win the battle against abortion so long as we embrace “abortifacients” and call them contraceptives. When Randy Alcorn speaks to unregenerate doctors, they readily admit the truth; but physicians who profess Christ as Lord balk at the facts about the birth control pill.

      We know a good many couples who grieve for the years they used the birth control pill in ignorance and very much wish they had known the truth from the beginning of their marriages.

    • Adam

      “Does the single egg have two souls in anticipation of the separation?”

      Eggs don’t have human souls. And as far I can see, there is nothing metaphysically wrong with the idea of a zygote having two souls, for that just may be what explains the embryonic fission later on.

        • Adam Omelianchuk

          As to your first question, maybe so. But I don’t see why it matters. While the claim that there is for every embryo one and only one soul may be indeterminate, the claim that there is at least one soul for every embryo is not. That’s all one needs to be concerned about whether or not it has moral status.

          • James Bradshaw

            Adam: the belief that the soul exists from the moment of conception has not been the universal belief through all of Christian history. Thomas Aquinas believed in the notion of ensoulment, meaning the soul was imparted to the developing fetus sometime later in its development.

            I think folks would do better to fight for the natural rights of the fetus once signs of life can be discerned (heart beat, brain activity), just as we use these signs (or lack thereof) to determine the time of death.

            • Chris Ryan

              The idea that life begins at conception is neither universal, nor has it been the belief since the beginning of the Church. Its an entirely recent phenomenon, and didn’t gain wide currency until Reagan became President. Even Richard Land acknowledges this:

              “Many Southern Baptists had no idea their denomination was “on the wrong side of the Roe v. Wade decision and the issue of abortion” during the 1970s, Land said. Students whom Land teaches in his classes at SBC seminaries are “shocked” the convention once was perceived by many people as pro-choice because of resolutions passed during that time, he said.”

                • Chris Ryan

                  That makes 2 of us! 🙂 I’ve yet to read a scripture in the Bible that says that zygotes have souls. The only way to arrive at the conclusion that they do is thru extra-Biblical reasoning, and that’s not “Truth”, that’s just somebody’s opinion.

                  • Adam

                    “The only way to arrive at the conclusion that they do is thru extra-Biblical reasoning, and that’s not “Truth”, that’s just somebody’s opinion.”

                    By that measure, this austere statement about what counts as “Truth” and “opinion” is itself an opinion. Come on now.

                    • Chris Ryan

                      Yes, it is an opinion. I’ve never said otherwise. But on this subject, so long as the Bible (“Truth”) is silent on the topic, we can only ever have opinions…Your extended reasoning on brain development demonstrates that. Its neither more nor less arbitrary than any other opinion, but someone might say ensoulment depends on when the heart develops. My father doesn’t believe fetuses have souls until they develop full lung capacity (based on “God breathed the breath of life into Man…”), but he’s upfront that its just a mortal opinion with little scriptural support.

            • Adam


              We shouldn’t really care about whether or not the belief in question is “universal” among Christians (not many are); rather, we should care about whether or not it is true that human beings have moral status from the time they begin to exist. You think this happens when there is brain activity, because we define death as the lack of it. Two things about this: whole brain death is a pragmatic standard we use allow actions like the termination of life-support and the harvesting of organs for donation. Second, the events of brain activity coming into existence and going out of existence are sufficiently different in a morally relevant way: whole brain death is irreversible; in the case of the fetus, it is developing. The capacity for higher brain function is latent in the zygote from the time of conception, and in its normal environment it will develop accordingly. That much should confer a different status to the fetus than to the one who dies in a hospital bed.

              • Adam

                “so long as the Bible (“Truth”) is silent on the topic, we can only ever have opinions”

                That’s silly. Your knowledge that that 2 and 2 is 4 goes beyond mere “opinion” even though the Bible is “silent” on the topic of arithmetic. You can’t force everything into one of two categories: the Truth and Opinion. Even if they are opinions, that doesn’t entitle outright dismissal. Since our opinions conflict (human existence begins at conception or it doesn’t), one of us is wrong and it is worth discussing who that is. Nor is my position made arbitrary by the mere fact that others disagree with me. But I don’t see this going anywhere since we cannot even agree on the terms of discourse.

          • Suzanne McCarthy

            As someone else has mentioned, people weren’t really aware of the time between fertilization and implantation. It wasn’t talked about that I can remember. And some women had multiple miscarriages before carrying a child to term. Some miscarriages went down the toilet. This just wasn’t a topic of conversation. Nobody talked about it.

            But I do know that many evangelical Christians who were pro-life, were also strongly pro-birth control. One doctor said clearly that women who wanted more than two children were selfish and socially irresponsible and wanted to “breed like rabbits.” This was not an uncommon opinion. So there has been a significant shift on this topic. I am simply unfamiliar with the current discussion of this stage of pregnancy as I have never heard it discussed before and of course now it is long after being in a position where this is personally relevant. But nothing in my Brethren upbringing came close to the discussion here.

        • Paul Reed

          @Suzanne McCarthy

          The problem is that you put your faith in human logic. Let me give you a harder question. Two early-stage embryos can combine together to form only 1 embryo. (a chimera). What happened here? Did 2 persons combine into 1? What happened to the other person? Did he die? Did both people die and a new one formed? Or what? The arithmetic of people here just doesn’t add up. So what can we say? Whether or not we can prove an that embryo are persons, we must understand that God controls what’s going on inside the womb, and we should not mess around with that. Put your faith in the Bible instead of human reasoning. God is never wrong. Humans are wrong all the time.

    • Christiane Smith

      as a former science teacher whose family is almost all medical people, I thank you for your common sense description which may not be common knowledge for many folks

      I suppose the difficulty comes when people ‘don’t know’ and therefore don’t want to risk making a mistake . . . but there are some things that do need to be known so that proper decisions can be made that are ethical and safe . . . even my Catholic Church asks for people to use their God-given reason in their roles as responsible spouses and parents.

      I am unable to understand the war against science that some feel is needed in order to support their theology, and of course I sympathize greatly with women who struggle to make responsible moral decisions in the face of advice that is often not backed up by facts.

      I am of the opinion, as are many women, that women’s health is NOT a political matter. It is personal and medical, even for those women who, with their spouses, are committed to do what is right in accordance with moral law. The political scene has not served women’s health issues well at all lately and it would help if women spoke out about this honestly . . . thanks again, SUZANNE, for speaking up with credible information that deserves to be discussed among faith communities.

      • Suzanne McCarthy

        Thanks, Christine.

        Frankly, I am just feeling confused as none of this was an issue when I was young. Did we miss something? Also, I remember distinctly that miscarriages were never mentioned and the most conservative of protestant Christians believed that the need to restrict population growth was paramount and birth control was widely promoted.

        I also know one women who had seven miscarriages before carrying a child to term. But early miscarriages were not talked about openly. Some people would never announce a pregnancy until after three months simply because they feared a miscarriage and that was a private matter. It was all a messy and private thing.

  • Adam

    “But there is not much figuring out to do if you accept the proposition that these devices potentially end a human life. The moral conclusion is really clear.”

    I don’t think it is so clear. It does not necessarily follow the fact that an agent might end a life, that the use of the agent is impermissible. If that were the case, then no medicine, vaccine, or hormone therapy would be permissible since they all carry this potential. And no one has provided a definitive set of statistics on the rate of which oral contraceptives cause abortions (assuming they do for the moment). The one’s I’ve seen speculatively suggested by Alcorn are at rates far lower than the rates at which people are killed in car accidents. But using cars is not morally off limits, so why would using the Pill be off limits?. This is not to say, it is clear the other way, i.e. that oral contraceptives and IUDs are unproblematic, but the principles stated above are far too strong in my opinion.

    • Bob Shaffer

      Yikes Adam! Your logic! I have a personal friend who is a physician who points out that all of medicine is about restoring what is not working properly in the body except contraception is about causing a perfectly working body to malfunction. That would be one answer to your argument that vaccines, hormone therapies, and other medicines intended to cure but can on occasion cause harm, which is one reason some parents object to vaccinating their children, but I digress. The point is those treatments are intended to heal and protect which is not true with the birth control pill when used for “contraception” – it has no medicinal purpose in that context.

      This is the sad reality for many… the birth control pill is used for convenience… it allows sex outside of marriage without (much) fear of pregnancy, and inside of marriage it allows for materialism and all manner of hedonism that is unhindered by a large family… and we are slow to want to give that up and thus we argue with the facts.

      My father long ago predicted that the birth control pill would lead to legal abortion. You can ague there is no connection but the fact is that the birth control pill has resulted in a devaluing of children.

      • Adam Omelianchuk

        Bob, what was the problem with my logic? You didn’t say anything that addressed what was wrong with it. Maybe you thought it was really good? 🙂

        As for your claim that “all of medicine is about restoring what is not working properly in the body” — it is false. Palliative care is a counterexample. So is anesthesia.

        As for the selfish ends contraception is used for, couldn’t the Natural Family Planing method have the same effects in and outside marriage too? The abuse does not negate the use.

      • Suzanne McCarthy

        “it allows for materialism and all manner of hedonism” However, in the 70’s having more than two children was considered selfish and focusing on your own gene pool instead of furthering the gospel of Christ by evangelism. I remember this distinctly. What is immoral in one generation is required in the next. It’s a 180 degree flip.

        • Bob Shaffer

          Suzanne: Sadly, all too often, the Church does follow the world, but God’s Word is unchanging and in this case the Church is at least somewhat self-correcting and realigning with God’s principles.

          • Suzanne McCarthy

            There was a dramatic response to the world population explosion in the 1960’s. It affected everyone.

            Also, in the 1800’s half of missionaries were single women and they achieved much in terms of development and foundation of schools and hospitals, translation, evangelism and church-building. In the 1950’s post-war, the focus was on those who went as married couples, and many believed and taught that the women with fewer children could much better follow the instructions of Christ and Paul regarding the importance of spiritual children, i.e. converts, over and above the natural family.

            There was no New Testament instruction on having many children. This was thought to be an Old Testament goal. Women, like men, were influenced to seek the Kingdom of God. After Elizabeth and Mary, the childbearing emphasis fell out of focus according to preaching of this time.

          • Suzanne McCarthy

            No, It was not a worldly trend. They were not as many single women missionaries as in the 19th century. However, in the 20th century, married women missionaries could focus more on God’s purpose as instructed by Christ and Paul, by restricting their family size. This was a pious thing to do and backed up by scripture. The production of many children was an Old Testament theme and spiritual children, that is converts, was the New Testament theme. So some Christians taught.

            Also, there was the global population explosion and great awareness of this in the 1960’s.

  • Don Johnson

    Plan B One Step is being sold over the counter and it is basically a higher dose of one type of birth control pill. And one of the effects of Plan B is possibly preventing implantation. So it makes sense that the weaker dose found in some birth control pills would likely have a similar effect, although likely less effective.

    But I think the idea that because something might have a tiny risk of an effect and therefore this tiny risk should be decisive in making a moral choice is flawed, simply because there are a lot of things that act in this way and I do not think it is possible to use this idea comprehensively in a moral calculus. All foods contain drugs, for example, it is just a question of how strong the effect is, at some point the possible drug effect is considered so minimal that that it can be ignored in practice. The thing about possible anti-implantation effects is that there is a large number of fertilized zygotes that do not implant, for one reason or another. When this happens, the woman does not even know about it, she just knows she is not pregnant when her period arrives.

    Here is an example. It is known that a lot of exercise and/or reduced food consumption has an inhibiting effect on the ability to get pregnant, apparently this is because the body figures out that such means it is not a good time to have a baby. Does this mean a woman is sinning if she has had sex and runs a marathon or goes on a diet? I do not think anyone wants to claim this.

    • John Kreiner

      “a large number of fertilized zygotes that do not implant, for one reason or another.”

      There’s a difference between a zygote not being implanted for unknown reasons, and a zygote not being implanted for reasons that the mother was aware of.

      • Paul Reed

        Right, but if we’re seriously going to claim that zygotes are persons, then we need to regard this as a national emergency. Why is this less serious than if 5-year olds were dying in large numbers? Millions of zygotes are dying of natural causes and you shrug your shoulders, but if a woman get a single abortion, then it’s the end of the world for you. My advice: Rather than focusing on abortion, focus on what God says about what he is doing in the womb, and what he says about children being a blessing. The Word won’t lead you wrong, and people will listen if you proclaim it.

  • bravelassKamilla


    It’s not just the Roman Catholic position, it was the position of all Christian bodies before the Anglicans broke ranks at Lambeth 1930. I don’t recall if you go over Comstock laws in your book, but about 150 years ago, Protestants were at the forefront of the fight against contraception. They argued that contraception would encourage promiscuity.

    They were right. it’s a well-described phenomenon sometimes called risk homeostasis. The belief that we are *safe* encourages us to make riskier choices, act in otherwise riskier ways. Auto safety/traffic laws is one area where this phenomenon is very well documented.

    Paul VI has also been shown to be prophetically correct in Humanae Vitae.

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