(Ricky Carioti/ The Washington Post)

“Right now, there is a [Gov. Scott] Walker-appointed judge running for the highest court in this state. She has actually said — I had to read this three times —she has actually said birth control is ‘morally abhorrent,’ and doctors who provide it, namely birth control, and women who use it, namely birth control, are ‘party to murder.’ Let me say that again. She compared birth control, which millions of women use every year, to murder.”

— Hillary Clinton, speaking before the Wisconsin Democratic Party Founders Gala, Milwaukee, April 2, 2016

Before the Wisconsin primary, Hillary Clinton used a local party function to blast Rebecca Bradley, an appointed Wisconsin Supreme Court judge who was running for a 10-year term on the court. Clinton’s efforts to single out Bradley for criticism failed, as Bradley defeated rival JoAnne Kloppenburg by 52-48 percent.

But we were curious to learn more about Clinton’s attack. Did Bradley really say that birth control was “morally abhorrent” and tantamount to murder?

The Facts

Clinton is referring to a brief column that Bradley, at the time a corporate lawyer, wrote in 2006 that was published by a small weekly owned by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In the column, she argued for legislation that would have established a conscience clause for pharmacists, permitting them to deny prescriptions written by doctors for patients. (Her column was paired with one arguing against the measure.) The measure did not pass.

You can read the full column through this link, but here are some of the key sentences, with the phrases mentioned by Clinton in bold type:

Pharmacists have been fired and disciplined for exercising the belief, which can be scientifically supported, that contraceptives may cause the death of a conceived, unborn child by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus.

A bill has been introduced in Wisconsin to protect pharmacists from employment discrimination and disciplinary action based upon their refusal to dispense drugs that would be used to cause an abortion. Proponents of “choice” oppose such conscience clauses because they interfere with the elevation of women’s convenience over pharmacists’ objections to being a party to murder….

We entrust women — ­ even minors — with the decisions to conceive, take contraceptives and abort their unborn children. It is certainly reasonable to expect women to plan for obtaining contraceptives from another pharmacy, the nearest Planned Parenthood or an emergency room.

Notably, patients do not have the right to demand abortions, sterilizations or euthanasia from Roman Catholic or other morally guided hospitals or providers.

The law protects women who choose to terminate pregnancy by chemical means.

The law protects doctors who choose to facilitate the termination of life by chemical means.

The law certainly should protect pharmacists who choose not to be a party to the morally abhorrent termination of life. Hypocritically, “pro-­choice” advocates are rather anti-­choice on this issue.

In context, Bradley is discussing contraceptives that “may cause the death of a conceived, unborn child by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus.” Generally, this would refer to drugs such as the morning-after pill, but some antiabortion advocates also would include the birth-control pill in this category.

Bradley, at the end of her column, directed readers to an organization known as Pro-Life Wisconsin for more information. Its website at the time listed birth-control pills as potentially “causing chemical abortions in the earliest stages of life.”

A fact sheet on the proposed conscience clause issued by the group in 2009 focused on the morning-after pill but also said the “intrauterine device (IUD), Depo Provera, Norplant, the Patch, and the Pill can act to terminate a pregnancy by chemically preventing an already fertilized egg (a fully human embryo) from implanting in the uterine wall.”

(Since then, however, a number of studies have concluded that morning-after pills actually work before ovulation, stopping the egg from being released from a woman’s ovary. In other words, the egg never gets fertilized in the first place. But back in 2006, the package inserts for Plan B did raise the possibility a fertilized egg could be affected.)

Saying that the birth-control pill may lead to an abortion is controversial even within the Pro-Life movement. The website of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists actually has dueling position papers on the subject, with some members saying the pill is not an abortifacient and other members arguing that it is one.

Of course, there are birth-control methods that clearly never affect a fertilized egg, such as male and female condoms, diaphragms and cervical caps. These are barriers that prevent the sperm from ever reaching the egg. Pro-Life Wisconsin, on its website, says it is opposed to all forms of artificial contraception. But 15 percent of Catholic women between the ages of 15 and 44 at risk of getting pregnant report using a condom, according to a 2011 survey by the Guttmacher Institute, which favors abortion rights. (Another 31 percent use the birth-control pill, and 5 percent use an IUD.)

Bradley’s campaign did not respond to a query about her column. But there’s no indication in it that she was opposed to all forms of birth control, particularly because she writes that “it is certainly reasonable to expect women to plan for obtaining contraceptives from another pharmacy, the nearest Planned Parenthood or an emergency room.” Rather, she argues on behalf of pharmacists who were morally opposed to chemical ways of inducing abortion, in contrast to surgical abortion in hospitals.

Human development begins when the single-cell zygote is formed after a sperm joins with an egg. (Here’s a pretty cool video showing the process. h/t Mollie Hemingway.) The deeper question of whether a fertilized egg, before implantation in the uterus, is a living being is a moral question beyond the purview of The Fact Checker.

Even without human intervention, about 50 percent of fertilized eggs fail to survive long enough before a woman notices she has missed her period; they spontaneously abort because something went wrong as the cells divided. That’s one reason advocates of abortion rights tend to emphasize that pregnancy begins after the fertilized eggs are implanted.

Yet a 2011 survey of 1,154 American OB/GYNs found that 57 percent said that pregnancy begins at conception, 28 percent said it begins at implantation and 16 percent were unsure. That certainly indicates the issue is not settled, even among doctors.

The Clinton campaign defended her phrasing but did not offer a specific comment.

The Pinocchio Test

Clinton is putting words in Bradley’s mouth. A fair reading of Bradley’s 10-year-old column is that she is describing and defending the views of pharmacists who object to prescribing chemical ways of terminating a pregnancy, including possibly a birth-control pill. This is based on a philosophical objection to the possibility that an already fertilized egg would fail to be implanted because of these birth-control methods.

But Bradley is not writing about all forms of birth control, as Clinton suggests (“birth control, which millions of women use every year”) nor does Bradley specifically write that women using birth control are a “party to murder.” Indeed, Bradley writes that “it is certainly reasonable to expect women to plan for obtaining contraceptives from another pharmacy, the nearest Planned Parenthood or an emergency room.” If Bradley actually believed all birth control was tantamount to murder, as Clinton claims, then it’s doubtful she would find obtaining contraceptives from another location so reasonable.

Bradley obviously holds conservative views on abortion, and she used provocative language. But Clinton has gone too far in claiming that those views include believing that all, or even most, forms of birth control are equivalent to murder. She claimed she had read Bradley’s remarks three times; perhaps a fourth time would have helped.

Three Pinocchios

 


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