On the Ethical Treatment of Rape Victims

By Kincaid, Joseph E. | New Oxford Review, March 2012 | Go to article overview

On the Ethical Treatment of Rape Victims


Kincaid, Joseph E., New Oxford Review


This past fall. Selon Healthcare, a division of Ascension Health Network, approved Plan B as routine treatment in fifty Texas hospitals and clinics for victims of sexual assault. Asimilar situation occurred in Connecticut in 2007 when that state's bishops reluctantly agreed to accept Plan B as treatment for rape victims in Catholic hospitals, after being coerced to do so by the Connecticut legislature. So once again we are faced with the question as to whether there is an ethical protocol Catholic hospitals can follow when treating rape victims.

What Is Plan B?

Plan B (levonorgestrel) is a progesterone-related hormone that is also called an emergency contraceptive or the "morning-after pill." It consists of two 75-milligram pills taken 1 2 to 24 hours apart and within 72 hours of a sexual assault. It is not to be confused with RU-486 (mifepristone) or Ella (ulipristal), which are more obviously abortifacients. The question is: Is Plan B a contraceptive, an abortifacient, or a combination of the two?

The Physiology of Egg & Sperm

Before we continue, it is well to consider the physiology of the egg and sperm. Ovulation generally occurs toward the middle of the menstrual cycle, when the Luteinizing Hormone increases greatly (the LH surge) and, within 1 2 to 48 hours (with an average of 36 hours), an egg is released from the ovary and begins thejourney down the Fallopian tube. The egg is only viable for 1 2 to 24 hours unless fertilization (the fusion of egg and sperm) takes place. After fertilization, it takes six to nine days for the fertilized egg to implant in the wall of the uterus. Pregnancy tests begin to register positive results six to 12 days after implantation.

Sperm can live three to four days, even up to seven days. The average sperm count is 60 million per milliliter. Sperm travel the cervical mucus in about 90 seconds, with transport time to the Fallopian tube completed within minutes of intercourse.

Is Plan B an Abortifacient?

A contraceptives any drug or device that prevents the sperm from uniting with the egg. An abortifacient\s any drug or device that acts after fertilization (conception), such as at implantation or later stages, in order to destroy the embryo or fetus.

In 2004 Edward Rivet, legislative director of Right to Life of Michigan, conducted an exhaustive study of the abortive potential of Plan B but was unable to arrive at a definite conclusion. Since then there has been an increasing concurrence that Plan B can act as an abortifacient.

When the Catholic bishops of Connecticut grappled with this question in 2007, they pleaded ignorance about how Plan B works. But TEVA Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of Plan B, had baldly stated, "This product works mainly by preventing ovulation (egg release). It may also prevent fertilization of a released egg (joining of sperm and egg) or attachment of a ferti I ized egg to the uterus (implantation)." The manufacturer knew it could act as an abortifacient and didn't hesitate to say as much. So why were the bishops confused?

The Connecticut bishops also stated that "the teaching authority of the Church has not definitively resolved this matter." However, in October 2001 , the Pontifical Academy for Life stated that "from the ethical standpoint the same absolute unlawfulness of abortifacient procedures also applies to distributing, prescribing and taking the morning-after pill. All who, whether sharing the intention or not, directly co-operate with this procedure, are also morally responsible for it." So the Church had indeed spoken. Nevertheless, the bishops gave themselves a way out, saying that if it were proven that Plan B acts as an abortifacient then "the matter would have to be reopened."

Divided Opinions

After the controversy re-arose i n Texas last year, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Committee on Pro-Life Activities was contacted. This office referred the inquiry to the Catholic Health Association, which offered a 201 0 article by Sandra E. …

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