In the novel Fatherless, by Brian Gail, the character Joe Delgado is shocked to learn that oral contraceptives have an abortifacient effect. Most oral contraceptives work primarily by suppressing ovulation, but breakthrough ovulations still occur in approximately one of every six months. If the breakthrough ovulation results in a fertilized egg (i.e., conception), then the secondary effect kicks in. The hormones in the pill make the womb inhospitable to the newly conceived human life by preventing implantation.
Medical ethicists avoided the question of when life begins by positing that pregnancy begins with implantation. Therefore, the pill prevents pregnancy. The fact that the termination of a human life is the necessary result was (and is) completely sidestepped.
This aspect of the novel continues to be current news. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration recently approved the drug “ella.” Ella is described as “emergency contraception” that can be taken up to five days after sexual intercourse. Ella works not only to prevent implantation, but to cause the body to reject an already implanted embryo.
There is some additional semantic obfuscation going on here. By classifying the drug as a contraceptive, the FDA opens the door for the federal government to fund use of the drug through Medicaid, Title X, and international family planning programs. If the drug were properly classified as an abortifacient, then laws barring the federal government from funding abortion would apply.
Words mean things, and in this case, loosely defined or even misused labels can literally be a matter of life and death.