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Next week, a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee will consider whether to recommend approval of a new emergency contraceptive pill. The drug, which is already on the market in Europe, can prevent most pregnancies up to five days after unprotected sex - that's two days longer than the only drugs currently on the market here.
But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, abortion opponents plan to fight the approval.
JULIE ROVNER: Here we go again. A major fight is gearing up over whether the U.S. should join Europe in offering a drug called ulipristal.
Paul Fine is medical director of Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas. He says there's a need for a new emergency contraceptive that's longer- acting than the current drug most widely in use, called Plan B.
PAUL FINE: There is more time for a woman to decide that, hey, maybe she is at risk, and maybe she ought to do something about it and get it done. And ulipristal is just as effective between four and five days as it is, you know, in the first couple of days.
ROVNER: That's not the case with Plan B, which can only be used for three days after unprotected sex and whose effectiveness declines the longer a woman waits. Fine, who oversaw the clinical trials of ulipristal here in the U.S., says the new drug, like Plan B, acts by inhibiting ovulation - in other words, preventing the woman from releasing an egg. No egg, no pregnancy. But it does it even better than Plan B does, he says.
FINE: The day before ovulation, Plan B is no more effective than a sugar pill. But the new drug - ulipristal - that we're talking about is highly effective even the day before expected ovulation, when the fertile time is the highest for a woman.
ROVNER: Preventing ovulation is no problem for abortion opponents. They're worried about what happens if a woman takes the drug after an egg has been released and presumably fertilized.
Donna Harrison is president of the Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
DONNA HARRISON: It prevents the fertilized egg, the embryo, from implanting in the uterus. And if the embryo has already implanted, it will destroy the embryo, and those mechanisms are identical to the parent drug of ulipristal, which is RU486, otherwise known as mifepristone.
ROVNER: That would be the abortion pill. The anti-abortion group Americans United for Life has raised similar concerns in its filings with the FDA. Mailee Smith is the group's staff counsel.
MAILEE SMITH: This drug should not be classified as an emergency contraceptive like Plan B. It is nothing like Plan B. It is the next generation of RU486.
ROVNER: But Paul Fine of Planned Parenthood, who also teaches obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor University, says the critics fundamentally misunderstand the way the new drug works.
FINE: It is not an abortion drug, as being alleged. In fact, in the dosage it's being used, as a single pill, there's no data whatsoever that this causes abortion.
ROVNER: In fact, said Fine, during the trials for the drug, a few women did get pregnant because they had already ovulated - meaning, it was too late for the drug to work.
FINE: And if ovulation has already occurred, then the chance of fertilization in that particular cycle is 20 percent.
ROVNER: That's the same as it would be letting nature take its course and the same as with Plan B - proving, he says, that neither drug causes abortion and that even emergency contraception, while highly effective, isn't 100 percent. But that doesn't end the complaints from the anti-abortion group. They also have concerns about the new drug's potential safety. Those will be aired when the FDA advisory panel meets next Thursday.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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