ANNAPOLIS – Every two minutes, a sexual assault takes place in the United States, according to federal statistics, leaving thousands of women worried about the possibility of pregnancy.
That additional trauma shouldn’t have to happen, said Delegate Cheryl C. Kagan, D-Montgomery, who is sponsoring for the second consecutive year an emergency contraceptive care bill.
The bill would provide rape survivors with information about emergency contraception, but would allow hospitals some leeway in the materials’ distribution.
Hospitals could create their own “protocol” to provide written and oral information, which the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene approves, according to this year’s version of the measure.
“We’re allowing the hospitals to tell us what’s best” for their patients, Kagan said.
The bill provides “local flexibility and respect for religious diversity,” she said, while trying to “guarantee a minimum standard of care.”
“Most women don’t even know emergency contraception exists,” Kagan said. They don’t have to get it through a hospital, “but time is of the essence.”
Emergency contraception delays ovulation, prevents ovulation, or prevents implantation of a fertilized egg. If taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse, it’s 75 to 89 percent effective; within 24 hours, 95 percent effective; and within 12 hours, 99.5 percent effective in preventing pregnancy.
People still confuse emergency contraception with RU-486, the abortion pill, Kagan said. “Emergency contraception doesn’t terminate a pregnancy. It’s a super- charged birth control pill. It just disrupts the cycle.”
Last year’s version of the bill mandated that hospitals or other health facilities providing emergency care to rape victims distribute oral and written information about emergency contraception.
It required providers to inform victims of their option to receive the contraception and provide it or a referral to a distributor on request.
The bill, Kagan said, had the votes last year to pass committee, but was buried by last year’s chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.
A new chairman, a narrower bill and an election year make Kagan hopeful the bill will pass this year, she said.
But opponents still have found reasons to withhold support for the bill.
The Maryland Catholic Conference opposes the bill, said Jeff Caruso, associate director, even though the church stayed out of the debate on a similar bill in Illinois.
“Emergency contraception is misleading,” Caruso said. The drug can prevent implantation, which Caruso said the church considers “an early abortion.”
Catholic hospitals wouldn’t be required to dispense the medication, Kagan said, only to provide whatever information the church can provide given its religious rules.
Caruso said he’s not reassured, because “ultimately the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has the final say.”
Pro-choice and pro-life advocates should be united on the bill, Kagan said.
“People have always said they want to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. Surely there can be no pregnancy more unwanted,” then one resulting from sexual assault.
Emergency contraception gives women the alternative of blocking a pregnancy, Kagan said, rather than facing the decision to terminate the pregnancy.
“At the very least,” said Wendy Royalty, public affairs vice president for Planned Parenthood of Maryland, “we can make sure that women can prevent an unwanted pregnancy.”
The Marylanders for the Right to Choose coalition, which includes Planned Parenthood, supports the bill, Royalty said.
“It’s an important step in the right direction to educate people about emergency contraception,” she said.
Maryland Right to Life doesn’t take a position on contraception.
The Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault Inc. has some concerns with the bill, said President Barbara Hill, indicating the coalition would probably not support it.
The bill falls short by only addressing emergency contraception, Hill said. By focusing on the issue, a hospital may neglect other needs of rape victims, but still be seen as compliant under the law, she said.
The American College of Emergency Physicians, the Maryland Board of Nursing and the Maryland Nurses Association have not yet taken positions on the legislation.