American women could soon have another form of emergency contraception available to them as federal regulators are set to explore whether or not to endorse the French pill dubbed “ella”. The pill, already available in Europe, has the ability to prevent pregnancy for up to five days after unprotected sex. But because the drug is similar in its chemical makeup to RU-486, the anti-choice community has already come out strongly opposed to offering women the option.
Ella works as a contraceptive by blocking the activity of progesterone, which delays the ovaries from producing an egg. RU-486 also blocks the progesterone activity, and progesterone is necessary to prepare the womb to accept a fertilized egg and create the right environment for that egg to turn into an embryo. Those opposing ella believe that the drug, if taken in elevated doses, can “kill embryos” by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting or dislodging a growing embryo.
Of course, these concerns not only misstate the facts of the proposed launch of ella, they also completely ignore the specific need women have for the drug. Since RU-486 was approved 10 years ago its popularity has soared. The testing done so far on ella shows the drug to be about twice as effective as RU-486 in preventing pregnancy, and its effectiveness remains constant for at least 120 hours. RU-486 begins to lose its effectiveness almost immediately and becomes ineffective after 72 hours. Those studies, involving more than 4,500 women in the United States and Europe also show that ella produces only minor side effects including headaches, nausea and fatigue.
The drug’s manufacturer has gone on the record that it has no plans to test ella as an “abortion drug” and view the drug specifically as a contraceptive. But that doesn’t matter to ella’s critics who not only oppose abortion but oppose contraception and are using the potential approval of the medication as yet another means of confusing the two issues.
If ella ultimately wins approval it will likely reignite the debate about whether or not doctors can opt out of writing prescriptions for the drug based on moral or religious objections and whether or not pharmacists have an obligation to fill them. This also represents the first real test of the FDA under the Obama administration. The agency had been routinely criticized under Bush as an agency that put politics before science, and once elected, President Obama pledged to keep ideology out of scientific decisions. Given the objections to the drug are based purely on moral, rather than scientific grounds, this should be an easy call for the FDA.
photo courtesy of Florian via Flickr