“President Obama has ordered all Christian institutions to pay for drugs that murder the unborn. This is an assault on life and liberty. Will we knuckle under, violate our consciences, and become accomplices to Obama’s immorality? If we vote for Obama, we empower him to attack the church and murder babies. Let’s defend life and religious liberty, and vote him out.” — Ad from the campaign of David Lewis, a candidate who challenged House Speaker John Boehner in the Ohio Republican primary

We’ve heard a lot of arguments in recent weeks that certain forms of contraception — especially emergency contraception — cause abortion, and that the government shouldn’t force church-affiliated employers to provide them for workers. GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich claims the mainstream media doesn’t want to address this issue, even though the Fact Checker column alone has touched on that topic in several recent columns.

Putting aside any questions about adequate media coverage, David Lewis’s ad features some of the strongest imagery and language we’ve seen a candidate use to suggest that the Obama administration’s contraception mandate is immoral. The video shows photos of what Lewis claims to be aborted fetuses, while accusing President Obama of forcing religious organizations to pay for drugs that murder the unborn.

We examined how emergency contraception works to determine whether the language and visuals in this ad were accurate. As usual, we’re not going to wade into the debate over exactly when life begins. As you’ll see, that’s not even necessary to determine whether Lewis’s ad deserves Pinocchios.

The Facts

David Lewis is a 26-year-old full-time activist and self-described “devout Christian” from suburban Cincinnati who challenged Ohio’s John Boehner and lost in the Republican primary. Lewis claims the House speaker isn’t living up to his antiabortion words, since he has voted for spending bills that provided funding for Planned Parenthood. The political newcomer lost Tuesday with just 16 percent of the vote.

On a side note, Lewis’s campaign Web site says he was arrested “at both John Boehner’s (R) and Harry Reid’s (D) offices over government funding of businesses that murder children.” That statement suggests that he was somehow a victim of abortion funding, so we know right away that this congressional hopeful has a tendency toward mischaracterization.

Lewis told us by phone that U.S. Capitol Police arrested him at Boehner’s office for civil disobedience, and that he was released after paying a $50 fine. So he was actually taken in for protesting government-funded abortion, not simply by virtue of the government funding “businesses that murder children.”

As for the contraception mandate, we’ll offer a quick refresher. It requires employers to provide FDA-approved forms of birth control without charging the insured. Antiabortion hardliners oppose some forms of contraception on that list, particularly intrauterine devices (IUDs) and emergency contraception — also known as Plan B and the morning-after pill.   

Whether or not IUDs or emergency contraception cause abortion is a matter of fierce debate. It depends on how you define conception. Does it occur at the moment of fertilization or when a fertilized egg implants itself in the uterine wall?

According to the FDA, IUDs change the lining of the uterus to make it difficult for fertilized eggs to attach. Plan B is designed to prevent the egg from becoming fertilized in the first place.  The maker of the drug acknowledges that it “may inhibit implantation” of an embryo.

The way GOP candidate and physician Ron Paul describes Plan B, it’s like the birth-control pill on steroids — not to confuse readers with mixed pharmaceutical references.

A March 2011 fact sheet from the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics and the International consortium for Emergency Contraception said the following about the morning-after pill:

“A number of studies have evaluated whether [emergency contraceptive pills] produce changes in the histological and bio-chemical characteristics of the endometrium. Most studies show that [emergency contraceptive pills] have no such effect on the endometrium, indicating that they have no mechanism to prevent implantation.”

Still, it’s pointless in the context of Lewis’s ad to debate whether these controversial birth-control methods affect embryos, because the video shows images of fetuses. Those only form after a fertilized egg has implanted itself in the uterine wall.

This is vitally important because the contraception mandate doesn’t involve a single drug or device that destroys fetuses. That much is virtually undisputed within the scientific and theological communities, and therefore not up for debate.

Again, an embryo is not a fetus. So while many religious groups believe that both contain life, Lewis’s gruesome fetus images make little sense in the context in which he used them. It would be more appropriate to show discharged embryos.

Even in that case, the embryos would need to be less than seven days old, meaning still in the blastocyst, or pre-implantation, stage (check Google Images to see what that looks like compared to Lewis’s fetus photos).

Lewis acknowledged that his ad images don’t accurately portray what happens with emergency contraception.

“The words I’m using and the pictures I’m using obviously don’t portray babies that may have died from these chemical birth controls,” he said. “But it’s just as bad because, religiously, life begins at fertilization.”

Lewis explained that he chose the photos with the intent of causing “social tension.”

“I’m wanting to draw attention to abortion drugs and surgical abortion also,” he said. “I think that many people are going to see these images, many for the first time, and there will be some immediate and lasting effects. Women that see these ads that literally show babies that have been murdered — the mangled corpses of babies — and they are not going to go through with an abortion.”

Beyond the issue of fetus images, Lewis’s ad accuses the Obama administration of “ordering all Christian institutions” to pay for contraceptives. That’s simply not true. Religious institutions are exempt from the birth-control mandate, although affiliated employers such as Catholic hospitals and schools don’t enjoy the same privilege — their insurers must cover the full cost of workers’ contraceptives.  

We should note that Boehner and Lewis both believe that emergency contraception causes abortion. Here’s what the speaker had to say in early February while speaking out against the Obama administration’s contraception mandate: “This rule would require faith-based employers — including Catholic charities, schools, universities and hospitals — to provide services they believe are immoral. Those services include sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs and devices, and contraception.”

The difference between Boehner and Lewis is that the speaker has never said that contraceptives kill fetuses, at least not to the best of our knowledge.

The Pinocchio Test

Lewis’s macabre ad images are misleading and out of place in the context of the contraception debate. There is enough confusion about what birth control and the morning-after pill do without making patently false suggestions.

Regardless of when life truly begins, the birth-control methods in question don’t “murder” fetuses. One could argue that they might affect embryos by preventing them from implanting, but Lewis didn’t show embryos in his ad.

The congressional hopeful also mischaracterized the contraception mandate by saying it applies to all Christian institutions. In reality, religious institutions, at least as they’re defined by the Obama administration, are exempt.

Overall, Lewis earns four Pinocchios for his campaign ad.

Four Pinocchios

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