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Letters & Op-Eds - 2006

Hartford Courant

Does Church Doctrine Trump Rape Victims' Needs?

Frances Kissling

19 March 2006

A bill before the Connecticut General Assembly requiring hospitals, including four Catholic ones, to provide emergency contraception to sexual assault survivors is heatedly opposed by local Catholic bishops and the Catholic hospitals. They want an exemption permitting hospitals to deny emergency contraception to women who have been raped, because such contraception might induce what they consider an abortion.

The competency of Catholic bishops to make medical and scientific judgments is questionable. After all, some claim that condoms have small holes through which HIV can pass - thus spreading rather than preventing the disease. Despite being told repeatedly by the World Health Organization and other experts that this is categorically untrue, bishops continue to repeat this misinformation.

In the same vein, bishops claim that emergency contraception, which is a higher dose of regular contraceptives, should be categorized as an abortion-inducing drug, despite all scientific and medical evidence showing that it acts before a pregnancy occurs.

These mythologies, which are akin to old wives' tales, would be laughable if they did not result in very real suffering for men and women at risk - of death in the case of HIV/AIDS and of truly painful unwanted pregnancies following rape.

The Catholic health care industry is somewhat embarrassed by the lack of compassion implied by the hair-splitting on emergency contraception. It has attempted to soothe public alarm by claiming that it does provide women who have been raped with emergency contraception - but only if they don't need it.

In Connecticut, the bishops have taken the extreme position that emergency contraception can only be provided after an ovulation test confirms that the woman is not ovulating or if hospitals can determine that fertilization has not occurred - but there is no test that will show that in the time frame that emergency contraception will work.

Others claim that legislation is unnecessary because Catholic hospitals will refer women who have been raped to places where emergency contraception is available.

Recent studies make this assurance difficult to accept:

A 2005 study investigating whether Catholic emergency rooms compelled by law to provide emergency contraception are actually doing so found that one-third were not.

Almost half of them refused to provide a referral to another facility.

Of the referrals that were given, half did not lead to emergency contraception.

Additionally, 20 percent of callers felt that the person who answered the phone had a negative attitude toward them, which included being evasive, hanging up on them or scolding them.

Catholic hospitals continue to insist that their religious freedom would be violated if they had to provide emergency contraception to women who have been raped. Should the hospitals' freedom trump all others' freedoms?

Many of the doctors and nurses in Catholic hospitals - Catholics as well as non-Catholics - are likely to disagree with the official position against emergency contraception.

Most important, the woman who has been raped has a conscience that might tell her that emergency contraception is the morally acceptable option. Not once have I heard a Catholic hospital publicly acknowledge the conscience of the patient and sought to find a way to honor it.

Not only do Connecticut's Catholic hospitals seem unconcerned about women's consciences - and their health - but some state officials seem equally oblivious. An unthinking protectionism of any belief asserted in the name of religion, however unscientific, cruel or bizarre, has become the order of the day.

In Connecticut's case, a pro-choice governor in the state that gave us the constitutional right to privacy sees no problem in women who have been raped arriving at a Catholic hospital and being told that God says emergency contraception is immoral, but they can get it across town if they move quickly.

No public official, no bishop and no hospital board member has the right to substitute his conscience for that of a woman who has been raped. Whatever conflict of conscience exists, decent people will agree that it should be settled in favor of the woman.


Frances Kissling is the president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an advocacy group based in Washington, DC.

Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant