Deb Heinrich was 18 when an acquaintance raped her.
Now a Connecticut state senator (D-Madison), Heinrich testified about the rape to other legislators as she explained why Senate Bill 1343, which she co-sponsored, requires all hospitals–even Catholic ones–to offer emergency “Plan B” contraceptives to rape victims. Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) signed the bill into law on May 16.
“It’s really quite a devastating experience, and it kind of puts you in a place where your body, as well as your mind, is broken,” Heinrich said in an interview for this article. “There should be no blocks put in front of [a rape victim] for getting appropriate care.”
The controversial law won’t be enforced until October, but it has already sparked fiery discussions about several complex issues regarding abortion, conception, and the separation of church and state.
Much of the debate concerns whether Plan B is a contraceptive or an abortifacient. Depending on where a woman is in her ovulatory cycle when she takes it, it can be either, said Dr. W. David Hager, a former member of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs. And that leaves the issue open to various political and religious interpretations.
“The union of the sperm and the egg [is] the beginning of human life,” said Archdiocese of Hartford spokesman John Gatzak.
“If a woman is already in the ovulation stage of a cycle, Plan B can no longer act as a contraceptive,” explained Barry Feldman, a spokesman for Connecticut’s Catholic hospitals, “and would only impede the implantation of the fertilized egg into the woman’s womb,” thereby aborting the baby.
“Plan B is a contraceptive,” Heinrich said, “and there is no medical evidence at all that Plan B interferes with implantation after conception.”
Hager has opposed Connecticut forcing hospitals to make the drug available, citing two studies showing it neither prevents unwanted pregnancy nor lowers abortion rates–and no one knows how it affects women after repeated or long-term use.
“I just think that it is very unfortunate that we are in a place where both providers and pharmacists have a mandate for how they are to practice medicine, so there is no level of conscience or moral aspect to whether or not we will choose to provide a medication,” Hager said. “There’s the potential that it may alter implantation or be an abortifacient. Why should providers be forced to do that?”
Also troubling are claims the law restricts religious freedom.
State Sen. Louis DeLuca (R-Woodbury) fought against the bill’s passage. DeLuca, a Catholic, said he saw it as a campaign against the church–one he would have worked to prevent even if he weren’t in politics.
“It’s the state telling a church to go against [its] principles,” DeLuca said. “I believe it’s an assault on Christianity.”
Feldman said Catholic hospitals have always maintained S.B. 1343 is unconstitutional because it infringes on religious freedom.
State Rep. Betsy Ritter (D-Waterford and Montville) disagreed, saying the law establishes a standard treatment for rape victims in all Connecticut hospitals. The Catholic hospitals, she said, could opt to have a third party provide the emergency contraceptive to victims.
‘No Problem to Solve’
Dispensing the contraceptive, victims’ advocacy groups argue, allows sexually violated women to regain control over their bodies. Nicole Steward, community relations coordinator for the Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Center (CSACC), said her group has seen survivors who’ve become pregnant through rape. The CSACC wants Plan B offered to every victim at every hospital statewide.
“Any time we can make a change in the system for the rape survivors, it’s the highlight of what we do,” Steward said.
Both Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals have had “kind of a spotty record of Plan B being offered,” Steward noted.
But DeLuca said the law “is a solution in search of a problem. There was no problem to solve.” In two years of hearings, not a single rape victim testified she’d had a problem going to a Catholic hospital or church for help afterward.
Steward, however, said that’s because “it’s very difficult for a sexual assault victim to come forward in front of a room of cameras and testify that they have been raped. We got as many as we could, and they clearly articulated that [the irregular dispensation of Plan B] was a problem.”
Gatzak said he had no problem issuing the drug to prevent pregnancy. But he does not approve of its use as an abortifacient.
“It is entirely incorrect,” Gatzak said, “to suggest that Catholic hospitals don’t administer Plan B as an emergency contraceptive or suggest that we are uncaring to a rape victim.”
Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.
For more information …
“Advanced provision of emergency contraception does not reduce abortion rates,” by Anna Glasier et al., Contraception, May 2004, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?db=pubmed&cmd=Retrieve&list_uids=15105057
“Direct access to emergency contraception through pharmacies and effect on unintended pregnancy and STIs: a randomized controlled trial,” by Tina Raine et al., Journal of the American Medical Association, January 5, 2005, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?db=pubmed&cmd=Retrieve&dopt=AbstractPlus&list_uids=15632336&query_hl=2&itool=pubmed_docsum