A Small First Step Toward Emergency Contraception Access

Senators Patty Murray, Barbara Boxer, Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have introduced the Emergency Contraception Access & Education Act of 2014 in the U.S. Senate. The bill is a small first step toward reproductive justice for women.

The bill is targeted only at sexual assault survivors’ access to emergency contraception. This limited scope demonstrates the injustice that currently surrounds women’s health care, in large part due to the over-protection of medical individuals’ and institutions’ claims of conscience and religious freedom, which harms women’s access to health care according to their own religious beliefs.

The Current Sad State of Affairs

Nearly 1 in 5 American women is a victim of rape; between 25,000 and 32,000 women a year become pregnant due to rape. The bill reports the current sad state of affairs on the availability of emergency contraception to survivors of sexual assault:

Only 18 States and the District of Columbia require hospital emergency rooms to provide emergency contraception-related services to survivors of sexual assault. Of those, only 13 States and the District of Columbia require hospital emergency rooms to provide emergency contraception upon request to survivors of sexual assault. Nine states have adopted restrictions on emergency contraception, and six states explicitly allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense emergency contraception.

Emergency contraception is needed in far more circumstances than sexual assault. One half of all pregnancies in the United States—3,400,000 million—are unintended. Emergency contraception reduces the risk of pregnancy by up to 95% and emergency IUD insertion by 99%.

Despite the fact that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that all ob/gyns discuss the availability of emergency contraception with all patients of reproductive age as a matter of their standard of care, only one-half even make it available to their patients when they need it.

The Proposed Solutions

According to the new bill, federal funds may not be provided to a hospital unless it provides suspected or actual victims of sexual assault with “medically and factually accurate and unbiased written and oral information about emergency contraception,” including that it is safe and effective. The facility must then offer the woman emergency contraception and provide it to her it if she wants to use it.

Some good news: this law applies to any hospital that receives federal funding, including Catholic and other religious hospitals that oppose contraception. The requirements also block health care providers from making the religious-but-scientifically inaccurate argument that emergency contraception causes abortion. Sexual assault survivors must be told specifically that emergency contraception does not cause abortion. In other words, medical doctors are required to tell patients the scientific truth about their medical care.

The bill also provides funding for emergency contraception education programs based on “evidence-based and evidence-informed standards of care.” Such education is especially important in the wake of Hobby Lobby, where the Supreme Court uncritically accepted the Greens’ and the Hahns’ argument that IUDs and emergency contraceptives are abortifacient while knowing that scientific fact does not support their claims about the medical treatment they opposed.

Common Sense

It should be common sense that all medical facilities offer emergency contraceptives to all women who medically need and want them–based on medical science. It should also be self-evident that the patient’s religious beliefs should be the only relevant beliefs in the equation.

This common sense has been distorted by letting individuals and institutions decide to offer personal-morality-based medical care, where they make their own decisions about how a medicine works or what care a woman needs. Like the nine states that have adopted restrictions on emergency contraception and the six states that explicitly allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense emergency contraception, too many state and federal laws enable such “conscience”-based medicine. Instead, all medical care should be evidence-based.

I commend the Senators for taking this small first step to protect some women who need emergency contraception. Even its passage is in doubt because Congress remains in thrall to religious lobbyists. Sadly, the new legislation reminds us of the giant leap necessary before women achieve full access to health care and health equality.