When a woman who has been the victim of rape enters the emergency room of a Catholic hospital in America, what type of medical treatment will she receive?
Surprisingly, there is no simple answer to this question-because the treatment of a rape victim depends largely on the protocol a particular hospital follows. And here's something that will surprise many people who know of the Catholic ban on contraception: Most Church-affiliated health facilities are authorized to dispense emergency contraception (EC) or Plan B to rape victims to prevent pregnancy from occurring. Though the Church has always taught the immorality of contraceptive acts within marriage, since at least the 17th century moral theologians have held that a woman can defend herself not only against the act of rape but also against the effects of the aggressor's sperm-i.e., pregnancy. Today, a woman's defensive methods would include drugs that inhibit conception by preventing ovulation or treatments that act upon sperm. Strictly speaking, according to orthodox Catholic theologians such as William E. May, taking anti-ovulent drugs after rape is not an act of contraception but an act of defense against the aggressor's sperm unjustly penetrating the victim's ovum.
However, once conception has occurred, the Church always has held that no acts aimed directly against the new life may be taken, even with the best of intentions. Archbishop Henry J. Mansell of Hartford, Conn., stated the Church's stand succinctly during a press conference last March outside the state's legislature, which was considering a law that would require all Connecticut hospitals, including the four affiliated with the Catholic Church, to provide Plan B to sexual-assault victims. "We are not opposed to emergency contraception for women who are victims of rape," he explained. "What we are opposed to is abortion."
Laws forcing health facilities to provide emergency contraception have become a flashpoint of contention between church and state, with at least seven states passing such bills in recent years, some with exemptions or conscience clauses, others with compromises that allow Catholic facilities simply to refer a rape victim to another facility.
Claiming that emergency contraception may sometimes act on a woman's uterine wall to bar the implantation of an already fertilized ovum-and thus abort a newly formed human life-some U.S. bishops have opposed such laws as a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom. The Catholic Church must not be forced by civil law to act in ways contrary to its moral law, they say. These bishops have fought passage of such bills or at least demanded a conscience clause that would exempt Catholic facilities from dispensing emergency contraception to every rape victim who requests it.
State legislators pushing the bills, on the other hand, have viewed the Church's position as a form of religious fanaticism that runs contrary to public-health policy and therefore must be overcome. To these lawmakers, the exotic Catholic view on the human dignity of embryos-akin in some minds to the Jehovah's Witnesses' ban on blood transfusions-cannot be allowed to influence public-health policy that is based on compassion towards victims of sexual assault.
The issue is clouded by the fact that not all responsible Catholic voices agree on what is allowable within Catholic morals and practice. Can the Church licitly follow these civil mandates to provide EC, can it live with referrals and other compromises, or must it resist all these laws on principle, with the predictable impasses, staredowns, and negative publicity that the secular media reserve for Catholic teachings on sexuality?
Given the Catholic Church's wide network of health-care facilities throughout the United States, as well as the sensitive First Amendment religious issues involved, the question over protocols is more than an internal Church debate. …