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CFFC in the News - 2006

albany times-union

Study: Hospital care fails women

Michelle Morgan Bolton

3 February 2006

Catholic facilities deny access to emergency contraception, health group's survey finds

Results of a national survey released Thursday say Catholic hospitals in New York routinely deny mandated access to emergency contraception to women, including victims of sexual assault.

The concentrated dose of oral contraceptives or "morning after" pills protect against pregnancy up to 120 hours after intercourse, by inhibiting ovulation and fertilization. It is not to be confused with the abortion pill, RU-486.

The study by Washington, D.C.-based Catholics for A Free Choice, a women's health care advocacy group, said staff at 94 facilities in New York, California, South Carolina and Washington said no such emergency contraceptive treatment is available at their hospital 35 percent of the time.

Locally, the study included St. Clare's Hospital in Schenectady, St. Mary's in Amsterdam, St. Peter's in Albany and Seton Health in Troy.

While 7 percent in the overall study said emergency contraception is available upon request for all women, another 20 percent of respondents either tried to evade the calls, hung up on the callers or, at times, scolded them, according to the poll.

"The results were mixed at best, and devastating at worst," said Catholics for a Free Choice president Frances Kissling. "Women of many different religions seek emergency care at Catholic hospitals, in part, because of their reputation for compassionate, quality care. That the Catholic hospitals we surveyed would turn women away in their time of need ... is not only a violation of the law, it is a violation of their mission."

Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the Catholic Conference of New York State, said he was unaware of any sexual assault victims who have come forward and said they've been denied services.

"Until they do? I'm not going to take this seriously," he said. "They're not a Catholic organization. Their mission is to undermine the church."

State Health Department spokesman Robert Kenny said there have been five complaints of hospitals denying access to emergency contraception since January 2005.

Two of those complaints charging inadequate service and care for sexual assault victims were verified, Kenny said. The incidents, both reported in April, occurred at Erie County Medical Center and St. Vincent's Midtown Hospital in Manhattan, he said.

"The department periodically reviews a hospital's policies and protocols to determine their compliance with the law," Kenney said. "State inspectors review this information as part of our ongoing surveillance efforts when investigating an incident or complaint of a similar nature at a hospital."

According to the Catholics For a Choice study, staff at St. Clare's told test callers emergency contraception is not provided under any circumstances -- including rape -- nor are referrals available for doctors elsewhere who may dispense the pills.

St. Clare's has the area's third busiest emergency department, said its spokeswoman, Ceil Mack, who questioned the study's truthfulness: "Did they really call? What evidence is there? We have a very appropriate policy to address the needs of women who have been assaulted. We follow a protocol that is consistent with Catholic teaching and also able to meet the needs of women."

Three other local hospitals, -- St. Mary's, St. Peter's and Seton Health -- told callers they offer the medication with a caveat, either requiring a police report be filed, or a pregnancy test be taken, the poll said. Such requirements are not mandated by state law.

In Poughkeepsie, however, staffers at St. Francis Hospital said medication is provided on request to whomever requests them, according to the poll.

More than 300,000 women are sexually assaulted each year in the United States, according to statistics provided by Planned Parenthood, a women's abortion-rights group. While an estimated 25,000 will become pregnant, about 22,000 of those pregnancies could be prevented with emergency contraception, data show.

All state hospitals are required to counsel patients about emergency contraception, make sure they know it is available and dispense it upon request.

"We expect and believe that all of our member hospitals are complying with the law," said William Van Slyke, a spokesman for the Health Care Association of New York State.

That agency represents more than 550 nonprofit and public hospitals, nursing homes, home care agencies and health care organizations.

The Catholics for a Free Choice telephone survey, conducted in mid-2005 by Ibis Reproductive Health in Cambridge, Mass., had trained female interviewers follow a written script to assess the likelihood they could either get the pills or a prescription, officials said.

This article originally appeared in the 3 February 2006 edition of the Albany Times-Union.