Plan B or Emergency Contraception's fifteen minutes of fame should be up by now, don't you think? It's beginning to feel more like a marathon month. First we experienced the never-ending battle for and the long awaited FDA decree that bestowed behind the counter access on Plan B. Concurrently, women have been needlessly challenged when trying to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception by pharmacists with a holier-than-thou chip on their shoulders. Catholic hospitals around the country have argued that women who receive their services following a rape or sexual assault should not have access to emergency contraception because of a religious definition of when pregnancy begins. And yet, women's advocates are aware of the power that emergency contraception can wield in women's lives, and continue to challenge efforts that restrict access. That's why, when sexual assault service organizations revealed that in 2006, 40% of women—and girls—accompanied by rape counselors to Connecticut hospitals after being raped were not offered emergency contraception or were not given the full dose (two pills taken twelve hours apart), reproductive rights activists and pro-choice legislators decided to act (not to mention a beauty queen).
An editorial in the Hartford Courant angrily dissected the above statistic, bemoaning that out of 500 women and girls who visited Connecticut hospitals (both secular and Catholic) last year immediately following a rape, 200 were not offered complete or appropriate care. Catholic hospitals may provide emergency contraception only after a woman has taken a test to show that she is not ovulating (which is one of the most humiliating and hostile hurdles I can fathom for a woman who has just been raped—to prove to a stranger that she is "untainted" enough for care). However, a pass on this purity-test seems still not enough for a woman to receive emergency contraception from Catholic hospitals in many circumstances. Both federal regulations and mainstream medical organizations like The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, define pregnancy as beginning with implantation. But since the Catholic Church believes that pregnancy begins as soon as the egg is fertilized, emergency contraception can quickly become an abortifacient in the eyes of Catholic hospitals. And Catholic hospitals have been using their religion as a shield against abortion, and now emergency contraception, for many years—denying services based on their right to "freedom of religion." Unfortunately, that's when women and girls lives become political pawns.
Almost as distressing, the secular hospitals in Connecticut are also falling down on the job. Laura Cordes, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, says that although no scientific survey was conducted on the reasons for hospitals' negligence regarding emergency contraception,
"a variety of reasons were offered: Some hospital personnel were unaware that they could provide the pills, while others expressed reluctance to give patients the full dose of medication because while one pill is taken immediately, the second must be swallowed 12 hours later—outside the hospital."
Up to 8% of women become pregnant as a result of rape—a statistic that can be lowered tremendously if the provision of emergency contraception was assimilated into all rape examinations. However, these statistics can't measure the suffering of even one woman who must wrestle with what to do when her assailant's child is growing inside her. The reasons that emergency contraception is not being offered with consistency at hospitals are important and must be addressed with a remedy. There are still far too many barriers to accessing emergency contraception regardless of whether a woman has been a victim of a rape or not. FDA rules allow for only women over eighteen years old to access emergency contraception without a prescription. Some pharmacists place personal belief systems above a woman's health or right to access legal medication. Small pharmacies can choose not to carry emergency contraception. With all of those reasons in mind, Democratic legislator Mary Ann Handley introduced a bill into the Connecticut legislature this year that would require all hospitals to provide emergency contraception to rape victims. If hospitals and providers will not ensure appropriate, thorough and complete care to a woman following a rape, let's hope lawmakers will.