- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

''If men could get pregnant," the late feminist Florynce Kennedy used to say, "abortion would be a sacrament." I wouldn't go that far, but we probably would be seeing more ads for birth control than we now see for Viagra.

Or, as one Internet joke puts it, if men got pregnant "maternity leave would last two years… with full pay."

And we probably would not have to wait for Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, New York Democrat, to come up with the bill they recently introduced to educate the public about emergency contraception.

Despite the obvious virtues of having open debate and a well-informed public on such weighty matters, the Murray-Slaughter bill was whisked off to the legislative limbo known as "committee" faster than you could say "politically incorrect." There it may languish into oblivion, unless some public outcry brings it out.

The public should cry out and not just women. Nearly half of this country's 2.7 million unintended pregnancies per year result from contraceptive failure, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With 1.4 million abortions every year, we ought to have some room to discuss a scientific breakthrough that could cut those numbers in half.

California and Washington have become the first states to allow pharmacists to provide prescriptions for emergency contraceptives after a brief patient consultation. Some other states have taken steps in the same direction. Yet, most American women do not know that the morning-after pill exists, according to a survey of 1,000 women by the not-for-profit Kaiser Family Foundation in 2000. Forty-two percent of those surveyed confused emergency contraceptives with RU-486, the abortion pill.

In case you didn't know, emergency contraceptives, also known as "the morning-after pill," essentially offer a higher dose of the active ingredients of conventional birth control pills. They must be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy. The abortion pill, RU-486, provides a nonsurgical abortion up to seven weeks after the last menstrual period of women who know they are pregnant.

Some anti-abortion groups, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, have opposed morning-after pills because of the possibility that a fertilized egg might be destroyed. Yet, even some abortion opponents agree that the possibility that a fertilized egg is destroyed pales next to the certainty that millions of abortions could be prevented by avoiding the pregnancy in the first place.

That's a major reason why "morning-after" pills have been accepted more rapidly in other industrialized countries since they first were approved for use in the late 1990s.

All French girls under age 18 have been able to get the "morning-after" emergency contraception pill free of charge in pharmacies without a prescription or parental approval since the beginning of this year. Pharmacists must speak briefly with the young women before giving them the pill to make sure they are using it properly.

England's government last week announced a pilot program that will provide morning-after pills to teen-age girls for free at a couple of western England supermarkets. Emergency contraceptives are similarly available in Canada, Denmark, Belgium, Israel and South Africa.

Yet, despite the preponderance of sex talk and sexual imagery in American media, remarkably little information has gotten around about morning-after pills.

Maybe that's beginning to change. More than 100 medical and women's health organizations last week launched a "Back Up Your Birth Control Campaign" (www.backupyourbirthcontrol.org) to spread the word about what organizers sarcastically called "the best-kept secret in women's health."

Maybe if men got pregnant, the secret wouldn't be so secret.

President Bush has asked Congress for $135 million $33 million more than last year for sex-education programs that encourage abstinence in teen-agers. By comparison, the $10 million that Mrs. Murray and Mrs. Slaughter want sounds like a modest sum to help inform teens and adults who fear an unwanted pregnancy or have had unprotected sex forced upon them.

While surveys show most Americans believe hospitals should offer emergency contraceptives to women who have been sexually assaulted, many do not provide it even when the victims request it. Rep. Connie Morella, Maryland Republican, introduced a bill last Thursday that would require hospitals to offer emergency contraception in such cases.

Again, it's remarkable that neither of these morning-after-pill bills has received more attention. Maybe they would have gotten more attention if men got pregnant too.


Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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