Contraception misconceptions

THERE has been a lot of talk about sex in the Commonwealth lately. Well, not so much the sex itself, but rather what comes next: the "morning after." Ever since Del. Robert G. Marshall mailed letters to ten Virginia institutions of higher learning in March encouraging them to cease their distribution of emergency contraception, the topic has been hot. Amid all the clamor, what's a poor U.Va. student to think?

Well, let's start with what our administration seems to think. After deliberating the validity of Marshall's entreaty, the powers that be at U.Va. opted to continue distribution of emergency contraception (EC), or "the morning-after pill" as it is more commonly called, at Mr. Jefferson's University. Phew! We dodged that bullet, kids.

According to Marshall, EC is a form of abortion, and thus its casual distribution violates a Virginia law that dictates women seeking abortions must receive information on its procedure and alternatives and then wait 24 hours before the operation is performed. As quoted in The Washington Times on May 17, he went on to say that in the violation of this law, "The university is not pursuing its first mission: discovery, cultivation and protection of the truth. They want to cover up the truth so you can engage in behavior you wouldn't otherwise."

These are pretty interesting words from Marshall, who seems to have also appointed himself -- and not just universities -- Protector of Truth. Unfortunately for us, our brave defender seems to have a little bit of an issue with truth himself. Whether his problem lies in seeing it or in telling it remains up for debate, but the fact is that much of his argument against emergency contraception rests upon misinformation.

The "truth," if you will, is this: Contrary to what Marshall's description would have you believe, the morning-after pill is not abortive. Perhaps he is confusing EC with RU-486 (a.k.a. "the abortion pill"), a prescription drug that can abort an embryo while it is still in its very early stages of development. RU-486 kills. EC, on the other hand, kills nothing. Some of the time, all that emergency contraception does is prevent a woman's ovulation. With the proper usage of the morning-after pill, implantation can never occur. Since it is clearly impossible to abort something that has never existed in the first place, Marshall's argument is quite obviously flawed.

This issue aside, Marshall's initiative has brought some valuable points to light. Contrary to the opinions of many otherwise bright, well-educated, logical women, the morning-after pill is not something to be taken lightly. Is it the nightmare Marshall envisions it to be? No. But it's not fun and games either. What many women don't know about EC is that there are many side effects that can come along with it. These may range from unpleasant, though mild, conditions such as nausea and vomiting to more significant problems like infertility, or possibly even worse. Furthermore, regulation of EC distribution on college campuses seems dubious at best.

Reportedly, college clinics rarely keep records of to whom these pills are administered. This is dangerous for many reasons, but two are particularly troubling. First of all, no studies have been conducted to ascertain the possible long-term side effects of this drug, and these effects stand to be large given the massive amount of chemicals contained in only one dose of EC. If women are using this drug frequently (something the clinics, without records, have no way of knowing), they are putting themselves at a large risk, and one of which they may be unaware.

In addition, due to the immense amount of hormones contained in EC, women with certain medical conditions such as high blood pressure need to be closely monitored by physicians after taking this drug. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that this is happening.

What we can learn from this whole debacle is not that emergency contraception is a bad thing or that it needs to be banned on college campuses (quite the opposite, actually), but rather that it needs to be taken a little more seriously, both by those who give it out and by those who take it. The University needs to be equipped to educate its women about emergency contraception and to monitor them when necessary. Students, on the other hand, need to be careful to listen closely to what we are told, and to understand what EC will, won't, and can do, if we're not careful. Emergency contraception is another great step that science has given us toward freedom, but as we all know, with freedom comes responsibility, and it is time for all of us to -- gratefully -- take that up.

(Laura Parcells' column appears Fridays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at lparcells@cavalierdaily.com.)

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