ANNAPOLIS - Catholic organizations spoke against a proposal yesterday that advocates say could prevent thousands of abortions in the state.
The measure would require all hospitals and health care facilities in the state to provide information about emergency contraception as well as contraception itself or a referral to get it when they treat rape or incest victims.
The service already is provided at 15 hospitals in the state that are specially equipped to treat and gather evidence from sexual-assault victims.
"Time is of the essence; many clinics are not open on Saturday and Sunday when most of these incidents occur," said Judith DeSarno, president of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association.
The measure would make it easier for victims to obtain medication - essentially a high-dose version of the birth-control pill, but not the controversial RU-486 pill - that has been available for 30 years but few women know about, said the bill's sponsor, Delegate Cheryl Kagan, Montgomery County Democrat.
When the medication, which consists of two pills taken 12 hours apart, is taken within 12 hours of intercourse it is 99.5 percent effective, but it must be taken within 72 hours, advocates stress.
Chances of pregnancy increase 50 percent if the pills are taken more than 12 hours after the assault, they said.
"It's safe, effective and underutilized," said Ronald Orleans, medical director of Capital Women's Care, a physician's group that operates in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
But the pills aren't the only emergency contraception covered by the bill. Licensed health care facilities would be required to provide any federally approved drug or device "that prevents pregnancy after sexual intercourse."
Health care providers wouldn't be required to dispense contraceptive medication or devices, but would have to provide victims information and a referral to a provider who would dispense them.
But that "conscience clause" didn't satisfy the Maryland Catholic Conference or the Catholic Medical Association.
Dr. Louis C. Breschi, a urologist testifying for the Catholic Medical Association, said the move would violate long tradition of not forcing health care providers or institutions to violate religious or moral beliefs on contraception or abortion.
"Catholic institutions don't oppose government's rights to establish policy" but do object to government abridging their religious liberty, Dr. Breschi said.
The Roman Catholic Church opposes all forms of artificial birth control and teaches that conception begins at fertilization. And some contraceptive methods to be made available under the bill could prevent fertilized eggs from becoming implanted.
"The church's position is that if there's no …