HARTFORD — A bill that would have required Connecticut’s four Catholic hospitals to give rape victims an emergency contraceptive has died in a state legislative committee.
But questions linger about the role of Catholic hospitals in helping rape victims obtain the potentially abortifacient drug.
Barry Feldman, general counsel for St. Francis Medical Center in Hartford, the state capital, and spokesman for the Connecticut Catholic Hospital Council, said those working to defeat the bill in the Connecticut General Assembly were “very pleased.”
“This was an infringement on freedom of religion as guaranteed by the [U.S.] Constitution and state law,” he said.
Feldman believes the bill died in the Legislature’s joint committee on health without ever coming to a vote because “the votes weren’t there.” Some pundits have suggested, however, that there were enough supporters in principle to send the bill back to the Senate and House of Representatives. In practice, because this is an election year the bill’s backers were not willing to risk the electorate’s adverse reaction.
Bill 445 would have required all hospitals in the state to provide the “Plan B” emergency contraception drug to all women, without exceptions, who requested it. But Feldman told the committee that the bill would have forced Catholic hospitals to violate Catholic teachings against abortion and the Ethical & Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERDs) of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Feldman revealed that Archbishop Henry Mansell of Hartford and Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport eight months ago asked the four Catholic hospitals to work with ethicists on a joint protocol for the treatment of rape victims. All were attempting to meet the ERDs, Feldman told the Register, but not in the same way and perhaps not consistently.
The directives state that a woman who has been raped “should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault.”
According to Deirdre McQuade, pro-life spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops’ conference, “the directive allowing properly contraceptive (and not abortifacient) measures for rape victims finds its root in a Vatican response to an inquiry from religious sisters in danger of being raped in the Congo during political unrest in the ’60s. It has appeared in the ERDs since its first edition in 1971.”
The ERDs stipulate that if testing indicates a rape victim has not conceived “she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation or fertilization.” But the directive prohibits treatments that might destroy or prevent the implantation of a nascent embryo.
The “Sexual Assault Protocol” now in place for Connecticut’s Catholic hospitals calls for a rape victim to be tested first for pregnancy. If not pregnant, she is then tested to see if she is ovulating (and could become pregnant as a result of the rape). If she is neither pregnant nor ovulating, the woman will be given Plan B, if she wants it, because it will prevent conception. If she is pregnant or ovulating, she will not be given the drug — because of its abortifacient properties.
In those two instances, the hospitals instead inform rape victims of the moral reasons why they cannot give them the Plan B drug, and, if they want it, provide transportation to a different hospital or clinic where they can take the drug.
“Connecticut Catholic hospitals believe,” Feldman told the joint committee, “that their protocol balances the needs of the woman with the hospitals’ religious beliefs about the inviolability of every human life from the moment of conception.”
Advocates of the bill predictably disagree. Frances Kissling, president of the pro-abortion Washington, D.C.-based Catholics for Free Choice, has reportedly declared, “A woman who has been raped should be given comprehensive treatment in the first place she goes. … If that hospital cannot provide her with the services she needs, they should be ashamed of themselves.”
Feldman told the Register that Connecticut’s protocol is in line with the “prevalent practice” in most Catholic hospitals in the United States, including the so-called Peoria Protocol developed by St. Francis Medical Center in that Illinois city. McQuade told the Register that the bishops’ conference is not tracking how hospitals implement the ERDs.
While seven states have passed laws requiring emergency contraceptives, two have made exceptions for Catholic hospitals. Eleven others have legislation pending, according to groups promoting the laws. McQuade said the U.S. bishops’ conference has no policy in place for hospitals required by law to issue emergency contraceptives under all circumstances. “They just have to do the best they can,” she said.
There appears to be significant dissent from Peoria and Connecticut protocols. Three doctors — a Catholic, an evangelical Protestant and a Mormon — released a study in 2002 that argued that emergency contraception did not always succeed in its contraceptive goal, even if administered before ovulation begins, but could linger after conception and cause an abortion.
Connecticut Right to Life President Bill O’Brien worries that the hospitals are enabling abortions by providing rape victims with information about where to go for emergency contraception and the means to get there. “They are becoming involved in the abortion,” he said.
O’Brien sees Bill 445 as the latest in a series of anti-Catholic measures, including a failed 2002 bill that would have forced priests to report sex crimes revealed in the confessional. As well, he sees the bill as a way to promote wider contraception use and so make contraception providers like Planned Parenthood more money.
Msgr. William Smith, a moral theologian at St. Joseph’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of New York, shares many of O’Brien’s concerns. He too sees a concerted attack on Catholic hospitals, which provide one third of America’s hospital beds. The New York bishops, he said, have been fighting a losing battle in the state courts against a law similar to that which failed in Connecticut.
“The hospitals are under tremendous pressure, and Planned Parenthood is behind it,” he said.
Msgr. Smith believes that Catholic hospitals ought not to provide referrals or transportation to rape victims or anyone else seeking emergency contraception when there is a risk of abortion. “If someone wanted some poison, you wouldn’t say, ‘We don’t do poisoning but here is the name of someone who does and here’s a car.’”
He is also dubious of whether hospitals ought to be providing emergency contraception. “Unless a person has been really diligent in practicing natural family planning, you can’t really know if they are fertile or not.”
Msgr. Smith believes that the U.S. Constitution should protect Catholic hospitals if it refuses to comply with laws like New York’s. But if it does not, they should get out of the hospital business.
“They shouldn’t go down without a big fight,” he said. “But they do have to choose between God and Mammon.”
Steve Weatherbe is based in
Victoria, British Columbia.