WASHINGTON – Hospitals that receive federal funds would be required to provide emergency contraception counseling to rape victims under a bill introduced Thursday by Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda.
“This legislation would provide a safe and effective way for victims of sexual assault to prevent unwanted pregnancies,” Morella said.
Emergency contraception is a high dose of birth control pills that can prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse. Supporters of the bill stressed the treatment does not cause an abortion and should not be confused with the controversial “morning after” pill, RU 486.
“Surveys have shown that many hospitals do not routinely provide information or access to emergency contraception to women seeking treatment after being sexually assaulted,” said Morella. “Women in such desperate situations should have access to all options.”
One goal of the Compassionate Care for Female Sexual Assault Survivors Act is to raise awareness of emergency contraception, a medical option many women, and some doctors, know nothing about. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that nearly three quarters of women aged 18 to 44 were unaware of the procedure.
Supporters of the bill say emergency contraception counseling is not standard procedure in hospitals. A survey by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) found that only 46 percent of Maryland hospitals have a policy to provide emergency contraception to the women who requested the treatment, and only 33 percent would actually provide the pills.
The numbers are even lower in the country’s Catholic hospitals, where only 18 percent provided emergency contraception.
Richard Doerflinger, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the legislation would infringe on Catholic rights and beliefs.
“If you want to be a hospital, it will be illegal to be a Catholic hospital under this act,” he said.
Doerflinger disagreed with those who claim that emergency contraception would decrease the amount of abortions, saying, “It’s still the same fetus that’s being killed.”
“When congressional members understand the real focus of this bill it will not go forward,” he predicted.
The Justice Department estimates 300,000 women are raped each year in the United States and about 25,000 of them will become pregnant. If emergency contraception is administered within 24 hours, the risk of becoming pregnant is reduced 95 percent, according to Planned Parenthood.
“Timing is a critical factor in the emergency care provided to sexual assault survivors,” said Planned Parenthood President Gloria Feldt. “Immediate access to emergency contraception is vital to reducing the risk of pregnancy.
“It’s a safe, effective method of birth control and far too few women, and doctors, know about it,” Feldt said.
Maryland is one of 20 states currently considering similar legislation at the state level. But supporters of the bill said a federal law is needed.
“Who wouldn’t want to help these already traumatized women by making sure they don’t become pregnant as a result of their assault?” asked Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., a cosponsor of the bill.