When it comes to women’s health issues like contraception and abortion, why does the press so often present opinion and fact side by side? Recent pieces in Reuters,the New York Times and SCOTUSblog, to name just a few, made an attempt at “balance” by presenting what they see as “both sides of the issue” on contraception. But do facts have two sides? When reporting on medical issues, weighing a religious belief as equal to scientific and medical evidence is disingenuous and confusing to the reader. And often there is no opportunity to correct misinformation. As a women’s health care provider, this disappoints and frustrates me.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires that all new insurance plans cover the full spectrum of FDA-approved birth control with no additional out-of-pocket expense. Since cost is a considerable barrier to accessing many prescription medications, because of the ACA, millions of women are now better able to decide the method of birth control that is best for them, based on medical advice, not their budget.
Despite this significant advance, insurance coverage for birth control is under attack. Opponents of the law are spreading misinformation about birth control methods. This effort has gone into overdrive as the Supreme Court prepares to hear legal arguments from Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, two for-profit corporations that want to interfere with their female employees’ personal decisions about birth control. Specifically, the owners of these corporations object to providing insurance coverage for emergency contraceptive pills and IUDs.
As deeply troubling as I find the companies’ efforts, I am even more disturbed by the ways in which the media is complicit in their efforts by misleading their audiences.
The news coverage of the birth control benefit has been riddled with inaccurate statements, in particular, the allegations that the law requires coverage of abortifacients (medicine that causes abortion) or that the science is unclear on whether the FDA-approved contraceptives are abortifacients. Neither of these statements is true from a medical or scientific viewpoint and no matter how many times they’re repeated in the media’s misguided efforts to present multiple sides of an argument. What would be best for readers: the media should adhere to the facts. Some readers are interested in opinions on the facts, but opinions and facts are not the same.
Here are the undisputed facts:
FACT: The ACA requires new health insurance plans to cover the full spectrum of FDA-approved forms of birth control. It does not require coverage of abortion or abortifacients.
FACT: No FDA-approved forms of birth control – including emergency contraception pills or the IUD – cause abortions. Emergency contraception pills and IUDs prevent pregnancy, not disrupt pregnancy.
FACT: Pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg implants into the uterine lining. After implantation, that’s when a pregnancy test turns positive. Even among women not on birth control, not every fertilized egg implants. Therefore, the possibility that the copper IUD could inhibit implantation does not make it an abortifacient. This is not an opinion. This is the shared consensus of the medical and scientific community, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
When I counsel my patients about their birth control, we discuss all their questions to make sure they have complete answers in order to make an informed decision. It is a very rare patient who asks about whether contraception acts on fertilization or implantation. I’m ready for that discussion if it arises; we can come to a decision that respects their beliefs and meets their medical needs.
I do not question the religious beliefs of those who disagree with the contraceptive coverage requirement. However, the media should not report their beliefs as medical facts. Suggesting otherwise or claiming that there is “unsettled science “about how contraception works is false.
The media plays such an important role in shaping public opinion and understanding. Many of my patients ask me about how what they see in the news might impact their health, be it a story on mammograms, hormone replacement therapy, or birth control. My hope is that more outlets will prioritize illuminating the facts, especially when an issue seems contentious or controversial. The stakes, particularly when it comes to women’s health care issues, are too high not to.
Lin-Fan Wang, MD, MPH practices family medicine in the Bronx, New York and is the Reproductive Health Advocacy Fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health.