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New York Times' Public Editor Criticizes One-Sided Piece on Emergency Contraception

New York Times' Public Editor Criticizes One-Sided Piece on Emergency Contraception

February 19, 2014 — The New York Times made a poor decision in featuring an antiabortion-rights physician's criticism of emergency contraception without offering alternative views on the issue, the paper's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, writes in the Times' "Public Editor's Journal."

Sullivan explains that in a Feb. 7 online forum, the Times published experts' responses to its "Room for Debate" feature, which asked, "What unhealthy products should CVS stop selling?"

One of the replies, by American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists Executive Director Donna Harrison, argued that CVS should stop selling EC over the counter. "Aside from being ineffective, over-the-counter access to emergency contraceptive[s] is harmful to women's health," Harrison wrote. The other three responses said the retailer should stop selling "sugary drinks and food, energy drinks to minors and toxic cosmetics," Sullivan notes.

Harrison's piece prompted backlash from readers, with several physicians writing to the Times to contest her claims, Sullivan writes. For example, Sara Baird, a physician based in New York, said Harrison's statements were "not only false, they are intentionally so." Baird noted that "peer-reviewed rigorous scientific trials" have shown EC to be safe for women, including in OTC use.

Editor's Response

However, Sullivan writes that Susan Ellingwood -- an editor for the New York Times' Opinion section who oversees "Room for Debate" -- "defended the inclusion of Ms. Harrison's view and said that, if read carefully, it held up."

Specifically, Ellingwood said that Harrison never said that the "primary function of Plan B is to prevent implantation of a fertilized embryo," but only that it "may" do so in "certain situations." Ellingwood wrote, "Dr. Harrison's wording of 'certain situations' and 'may' is absolutely accurate: The safety for embryos is unknown," at least for the EC drug ulipristal, which is sold as Ella.

Ellingwood also said that Harrison did not say that EC was inherently unsafe and ineffective, but rather that it might not be taken as directed when available OTC. "Dr. Harrison is on solid ground to point out that real-world results may differ from clinical trials," Ellingwood said, adding, "Once again, acknowledging that uncertainty is the only ethical approach."

Sullivan concludes that the inclusion of Harrison's piece was ultimately inappropriate because, unlike many "Room for Debate" features, which include several views on a contested subject, Harrison's response "unfortunately appears to have The Times's imprimatur." Sullivan writes that the situation is "all the more troubling because Dr. Harrison's point of view is one that runs counter to scientific consensus: that this kind of [EC] is safe" (Sullivan, "Public Editor's Journal," New York Times, 2/18).