Statement on the So-Called "Morning-After Pill"
31 October 2000
Pontifical Academy for Life
As is commonly known, the so-called morning-after pill recently went on
sale in Italian pharmacies. It is a well-known chemical product (of the
hormonal type) which has frequently - even in the past week - been presented
by many in the field and by the mass media as a mere contraceptive or, more
precisely, as an "emergency contraceptive", which can be used within a short
time after a presumably fertile act of sexual intercourse, should one wish
to prevent the continuation of an unwanted pregnancy. The inevitable
critical reactions of those who have raised serious doubts about how this
product works, namely, that its action is not merely "contraceptive" but
"abortifacient", have received the very hasty reply that such concerns
appear unfounded, since the morning-after pill has an "anti-implantation"
effect, thus implicitly suggesting a clear distinction between abortion and
interception (preventing the implantation of the fertilized ovum, i.e., the
embryo, in the uterine wall).
Considering that the use of this product concerns fundamental human goods
and values, to the point of involving the origins of human life itself, the
Pontifical Academy for Life feels the pressing duty and definite need to
offer some clarifications and considerations on the subject, reaffirming
moreover already well-known ethical positions supported by precise
scientific data and reinforced by Catholic doctrine.
1. The morning-after pill is a hormone-based preparation (it can contain
oestrogens, oestrogen/progestogens or only progestogens) which, within and
no later than 72 hours after a presumably fertile act of sexual intercourse,
has a predominantly "anti-implantation" function, i.e., it prevents a
possible fertilized ovum (which is a human embryo), by now in the blastocyst
stage of its development (fifth to sixth day after fertilization), from
being implanted in the uterine wall by a process of altering the wall
The final result will thus be the expulsion and loss of this embryo.
Only if this pill were to be taken several days before the moment of
ovulation could it sometimes act to prevent the latter (in this case it
would function as a typical "contraceptive").
However, the woman who uses this kind of pill does so in the fear that
she may be in her fertile period and therefore intends to cause the
expulsion of a possible new conceptus; above all, it would be unrealistic to
think that a woman, finding herself in the situation of wanting to use an
emergency contraceptive, would be able to know exactly and opportunely her
current state of fertility.
2. The decision to use the term "fertilized ovum" to indicate the
earliest phases of embryonic development can in no way lead to an artificial
value distinction between different moments in the development of the same
human individual. In other words, if it can be useful, for reasons of
scientific description, to distinguish with conventional terms (fertilized
ovum, embryo, fetus, etc.) different moments in a single growth process, it
can never be legitimate to decide arbitrarily that the human individual has
greater or lesser value (with the resulting variation in the duty to protect
it) according to its stage of development.
3. It is clear, therefore, that the proven "anti-implantation" action of
the morning-after pill is really nothing other than a chemically induced
abortion. It is neither intellectually consistent nor scientifically
justifiable to say that we are not dealing with the same thing.
Moreover, it seems sufficiently clear that those who ask for or offer
this pill are seeking the direct termination of a possible pregnancy already
in progress, just as in the case of abortion. Pregnancy, in fact, begins
with fertilization and not with the implantation of the blastocyst in the
uterine wall, which is what is being implicitly suggested.
4. Consequently, from the ethical standpoint the same absolute
unlawfulness of abortifacient procedures also applies to distributing,
prescribing and taking the morning-after pill. All who, whether sharing the
intention or not, directly co-operate with this procedure are also morally
responsible for it.
5. A further consideration should be made regarding the use of the
morning-after pill in relation to the application of Law 194/78, which in
Italy regulates the conditions and procedures for the voluntary termination
Saying that the pill is an "anti-implantation" product, instead of using
the more transparent term "abortifacient", makes it possible to avoid all
the obligatory procedures required by Law 194 in order to terminate a
pregnancy (prior interview, verification of pregnancy, determination of
growth stage, time for reflection, etc.), by practising a form of abortion
that is completely hidden and cannot be recorded by any institution. All
this seems, then, to be in direct contradiction to the correct application
of Law 194, itself debatable.
6. In the end, since these procedures are becoming more widespread, we
strongly urge everyone who works in this sector to make a firm objection of
moral conscience, which will bear courageous and practical witness to the
inalienable value of human life, especially in view of the new hidden forms
of aggression against the weakest and most defenceless individuals, as is
the case with a human embryo.