Monday, October 29, 2007

No Exceptions: Give Rape Victims Emergency Contraception

By Wendy Wolf and Cathy Raphael

(Click here to listen to a brief Public Service announcement distributed by American Forum. It was written by authors Wendy Wolf and Cathy Raphael on the importance of emergency contraception in emergency rooms.)

A victim of a violent assault arrives in an emergency room. Once the patient’s condition is assessed, it is determined that the patient has, on file with the hospital, an order called an “advance directive” – instructions by the patient on what measures the hospital should take to prolong the patient’s life in the event of a catastrophic illness or injury.

Most Americans agree that all of us deserve the opportunity to make such decisions, within the bounds of the law, without interference from meddling politicians or hospital administrators. Dictates of someone else’s religion or conscience should have no bearing, most agree, on whether or not our wishes are carried out about such end-of-life measures as respirators and resuscitation.

Now imagine that patient, that victim of assault, as a woman who has been raped. By law, the hospital has to honor her wishes on how she would wish to die. But what about how she may wish to live? Should that same hospital be permitted to so meddle in her personal and moral life as to withhold from her the means by which she could prevent the pregnancy that might result from her assault?

Last week, the Independent Regulatory Review Commission approved new regulations that would allow health care facilities with religious affiliations or moral objections to claim an exemption from an otherwise laudable new rule that requires hospitals to inform rape victims of their right to emergency contraception, and to provide the contraceptive pills to the raped woman if she wants them. The new rule was handed down just as legislators were scheduled to take up a bill that would have required Pennsylvania hospitals and health care facilities essentially to offer the same, but without a so-called “conscience clause.”

With the new rule, state regulators have apparently appeased opponents to the proposed legislation who want to allow facilities to withhold birth control -- even from rape victims -- based on theological or moral grounds. Others seek to muddy the waters by claiming that emergency birth control is something it’s not. (Emergency birth control is nothing more than two birth control pills combined. It does not terminate a pregnancy; it prevents one from happening.)

Regulators have tried to mollify advocates for the rights of rape victims by requiring health care facilities that claim a “conscience” objection from the contraception rule to provide transportation for rape victims to facilities where emergency contraception is dispensed.

This is hardly compassionate care; it is a form of moral condemnation that may, in the end, result in what would have been a preventable pregnancy. Any time wasted by the withholding of appropriate medical care -- in this case, emergency contraception -- further increases the victim’s risk of becoming pregnant by her rapist. In some areas, the only hospital within hundreds of miles may be one that refuses full medical care to rape victims.

We know we’re not alone in our understanding as American citizens that each of us, as individuals, has a right to make important life decisions, within the bounds of the law, according to the dictates of our own consciences. Indeed, we at the Women Donors Network, together with Communications Consortium Media Center, recently conducted research among voters nationwide, surveying attitudes on important life decisions. We found very strong support for the idea that people’s individual decisions deserve respect. An overwhelming majority -- 83 percent -- told researchers that they agreed with this statement: “We need to respect people’s ability to make their own life decisions and not impose our values and views upon them.” Eight in 10 voters -- 81 percent -- agreed that they “may have on position on abortion, another on birth control and still a third on end-of-life decisions” and that “sometimes we must just agree to disagree.”

Our research found that Americans value personal responsibility -- taking charge of one’s life and family and helping to make the world a better place. Voters affirm respect, protection, prevention and planning as values in this discussion. People believe that important life decisions can only be made responsibly if they have access to information and options. Women who come to the emergency room after having been sexually assaulted deserve the information they need to make an important life decision about whether to become a parent or not as a result of being raped. It’s time for Pennsylvania to ensure that the full range of health care is available to all women who come through the emergency room doors for treatment after rape -- without any religious exemptions.

Wolf leads the Women Donors Network project on reproductive and other health issues. Raphael is a Women Donors Network board member who is involved in the project.

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