THE BLOG
09/10/2010 05:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fact Checking the TV Fact-Checkers: Buck Would Oppose Common Forms of Birth Control

You're excused for missing it, but there's some disagreement among local TV reporters about whether Ken Buck's anti-abortion stance means he'd oppose common birth-control methods.

Three local TV news stations fact checked the segment of a Michael Bennet ad stating that Ken Buck "wants to ban common forms of birth control," and each station came up with a different conclusion.

7News called it a fact, lumping it together with Buck's position against abortion, even in the case of rape and incest, and stating that "this is Buck's position on abortion." (No citations are provided.)

News4 called it opinion, using this logic: "Buck's position is, life begins at conception. By far, the most common forms of birth control, condoms and the pill, work before conception. And Buck is not opposed to those." (News4 provided no citations.)

9News got uncharacteristically squishy on us and couldn't decide if the statement was true or false. 9News Truth Test transcript stated that the veracity of Bennet's ad "likely depends on what you consider common forms of birth control." (As with all of its Truth Tests, 9News did provide detailed citations, one of which cited an email from Buck's campaign stating that Buck opposes birth control methods that "would keep a fertilized egg from implanting, like hormone-based birth control methods, some other forms of the pill, IUDs, RU-486 and what's known as the morning-after pill." )

To get the facts on the table about the impact of birth-control measures on fertilized human eggs, I emailed Nanette Santoro, MD, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, at the University of Colorado.

She agreed to provide information, as long as I emphasized that she does not advocate any political position but instead provides current scientific thinking on the topic.

I asked her which human birth control methods don't damage a fertilized egg.

She emailed me this list of barrier methods: Condom, diaphragm, Essure method of blocking the fallopian tubes. She also included vasectomy and tubal ligation.

I asked which methods cause damage to fertilized eggs.

Her reply:

Combination birth control pills [made with hormones progestin and estrogen], vaginal rings, or patches interrupt ovulation and do not harm fertilized eggs. Eggs are not released in these cases.

Progestin-only pills, or implants, had been long thought to cause a hostile environment to the fertilized egg. The lining of the uterus is rendered unreceptive in this line of reasoning, and that is why women do not conceive. This conceptualization has led to the belief that these methods interrupt a fertilized egg. Therefore, a person who believes that life begins at conception would understandably be averse to such a method. However, newer research indicates that progestin-only methods make it harder for the sperm to get to the egg by affecting cervical mucus permeability to sperm, and may also interfere with the motility of the fallopian tubes, making it hard for sperm to get up there or for the eggs to get down. Therefore, the accumulated data now weighs more in favor of these methods not interfering with fertilized eggs. This is an important change in thinking.

Methods like the progestin IUD, Mirena, may also act this way and may not inhibit the fertilized egg but may prevent fertilization from occurring. The copper IUD is more likely to interfere with fertilization.

I asked her: When you say the data "weighs more in favor" of progestin-only pills "not interfering" with fertilized eggs, do you mean that they could potentially interfere but probably won't? This would be important to those who believe life begins at conception.

She replied:

I think it's unlikely but there is never any definitive evidence in that regard. So if I were a sort of 'agnostic' on this question of when life begins, I would feel comfort at the fact that my progestin-only method was unlikely to be interfering with a fertilized egg, and would sleep well at night. However, if I were a very black-and-white thinker, and could not tolerate the possibility that a fertilized egg might be interfered with by my birth control method-no matter how small the possibility-it would be best for me to choose another method.

I did a bit more research and then asked her this question: Even if taken properly, the combination pill that stops ovulation has a failure rate, meaning that sometimes ovulation occurs and an egg is fertilized accidentally. Very rare, I know. But if ovulation occurs, is implantation affected? In other words, is the accidental fertilized egg less likely to be able to implant in the uterus of a woman who's been taking anti-ovulation pills?

Santoro replied:

It's not known with certainty what happens when a woman who uses birth control pills regularly ovulates. Usually there is an error or an interaction with another medication that lowers the pill's potency. Because the pill contains both estrogen and progesterone, the lining is likely to be receptive to the fertilized egg. But in some women, the lining is actually stimulated by too much progesterone. In these cases, it gets relatively thin and might be inhospitable to a pregnancy. It is hard to know whether this is even a credible mechanism, though, because the pill also inhibits sperm entry into the uterus and alters tubal motility.

I asked her one last question: What kind of birth control pill is the most common, combination or progestin-only? Or are they about the same in popularity?

Her reply: I think they are all about the same in popularity.

So you can interpret Santoro's facts for yourself, since Santoro is not taking a political position here. She's just offering information.

But as I interpret it, if you believe that killing a fertilized egg is murder, as Ken Buck does, then you wouldn't tolerate even the most remote chance that your birth-control pill could cause murder by potentially stopping implantation, in rare cases, of a fertilized egg that otherwise could have implanted in the uterus.

So based on Buck's campaign statement to 9News that he opposes birth control methods that "would keep a fertilized egg from implanting," then he would logically oppose all types of birth-control pills, which are the most common type of birth control in America, because all of them could potentially do this.

In an excellent paper released Aug. 31, Ari Armstrong and Diana Hseih arrive at the same conclusion stating:

While most often the pill acts to prevent fertilization, sometimes it can prevent a zygote from implanting in the uterus," they write, adding that the birth-control-pill manufacturers, Ortho Tri-Cyden and Trinessa, state that their pills alter the lining of the uterus.

Only the fact checkers at 7News appear to have properly evaluated the segment of Bennet's ad addressing birth control.

7News reported categorically that it's true that Ken Buck wants to ban common forms of birth control, properly combining his abortion position with his birth-control stance. That's correct.

9News was half right, pointing out that Buck opposes birth control methods but failing to dig deeply enough into the matter to understand that all birth-control pills would be opposed by Buck, based on his own criteria for protecting fertilized eggs.

And News4 got it wrong by claiming Buck doesn't oppose the pill when, in fact, he has said he opposes some types of birth-control pills as well as any birth-control method that makes implantation less likely, which could include all pills, at least in rare instances.

Now reporters should ask Buck himself what he has to say to women who are using forms of birth control that he opposes. About 17 million women in America who use the pill, plus millions of others who use forms of the IUD and other methods, and would like to know.