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Ejaculation Does Not Equal Pregnancy

June 24, 2011

For us policy wonks, it is clear that when a legislator lacks a basic understanding of biology, their policy decisions will be driven by ideology rather than medical facts.  Lisa once had to explain to a state senator’s staff that sperm can live inside a body – after ejaculation – for up to five days.  (The Senator had been persuaded to vote against an Emergency Contraception bill by another legislator’s statement on the floor that  sperm can’t live in the body for 3 days.)  Although I wasn’t present, I believe she actually said, “Senator, ejaculation and conception are not simultaneous. ” And yes, sperm can live in the body for 3 days – or more.  And no, conception is not the same as pregnancy.  Lisa had to educate a State Senator about all of this. 

Knowing how pregnancy actually happens is essential to understanding why emergency contraception is just that – contraception, not an abortifacient (something that causes a pregnancy to end).  And it’s hard to make a law about emergency contraception if you don’t really know what it is. 

There are way too many people in the world – heck, just right here in New York – who do not understand how pregnancy happens – and the bad information they have contributes to anti-choice beliefs and tactics, and the general stigma around abortion.

So let’s start with the basic, biological facts.


In order to become pregnant, a person must be ovulating,* which means an egg is released from one of her ovaries and starts moving through the fallopian tube toward the uterus.  The egg will only live for about one day after ovulation, maybe two, although sperm can live in someone’s body for about five days.  If there are sperm present, and one sperm joins with the egg, then fertilization has occurred.  That’s right, fertilization.  Not pregnancy.  If an egg is fertilized, it will continue its trip to the uterus, and typically reaches the uterus in 3-4 days after ovulation.  Pregnancy begins if the fertilized egg attaches to the lining of the uterus.  Up to half of fertilized eggs never implant in the uterus. If a fertilized egg does implant, then the person whose uterus it is in, is pregnant. 

So what does all this mean for public policy and the stigma around abortion? First, you are either pregnant, or you are not.  Contrary to the First Response commercial, there is no such thing as “a little bit pregnant.”  Once someone is pregnant, no matter how early in the pregnancy she is, if she does not want to be pregnant, then her only option is termination – a synonym for abortion. There are no in-between options.

Second, pregnancy begins once an egg is implanted in the uterus.  Emergency contraception works because implantation typically happens days after ovulation.  That means that emergency contraception, or the morning-after pill, prevents pregnancy – it is contraception, not abortion.  Without implantation, there is no pregnancy to abort.  And emergency contraception will not interfere with a pregnancy, if a fertilized egg has already implanted in the uterus.  So if we can agree that contraception is an important measure to prevent unintended pregnancies, emergency contraception has to be included in that, and policymakers should expand access to it.

Finally, fertilized eggs are not people – they are balls of cells that may or may not become embryos, fetuses, and babies.  Deciding that fertilized eggs need to be legally recognized as people means completely ludicrous things, like buying two tickets for a pregnant woman to go to the movies.  More to the point, it means that any hormonal form of contraception would become illegal, because they can interfere with implantation by thinning the lining of the uterus.  It could also mean prosecuting somone who experiences miscarriage or stillbirth.

Understanding basic biological facts of how reproduction happens is essential to managing your own health.  It’s also essential to making good public policies to help people access the care they need.  And not understanding how pregnancy happens – whether out of ignorance or willful misinterpretations based on one’s social and political beliefs – can result in horrid violations of people’s rights.  Contraception is not abortion.  Becoming pregnant is a process that takes several days.  These are facts, not opinions.  Perhaps if they were taught in public schools, legislators would not insist on backward policies that treat women like vessels instead of people.


*I have two qualifications: (1) Some people who have ovaries, fallopian tubes, and a uterus identify as male or trans or genderqueer – not as women.  They can still become pregnant.  I’m intentionally not using the word “woman” so as to be inclusive, but also intentionally using female pronouns because male pronouns are too often considered “neutral.”  (2) There are alternative ways to become pregnant, such as through in vitro fertilization.  However, the vast majority of pregnancies will occur in the manner described here.


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