Legislation on emergency contraception said to threaten religious freedom

With very little fuss, the Massachusetts Senate approved June 16 a bill that would force Catholic hospitals to provide abortion-causing drugs. The bill passed without any senator objecting or calling for a recorded vote. The bill awaits further action in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Senate Bill 546 is presented as a compassionate measure guaranteeing access to contraceptives for women victimized by rape who present themselves to any hospital in the Commonwealth. But for Maria Parker, Associate Director for Public Policy of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference Bill 546 is “the wolf in sheep’s clothing, because it uses the emotional issue of sexual assault as a cover for beginning the attack on the Church’s opposition to abortion.”

The contraceptives, commonly known as the “morning after pill,” are designed to avoid pregnancy after intercourse when other forms of contraception fail or were not used.

Because the pills are most effective soon after unprotected sex, streamlining access to them is extremely important, according to backers. The bill would allow doctors and pharmacists to develop a protocol for the pharmacists to dispense the drugs without a prescription in emergency situations.

Abortion rights supporters praised the Senate vote, saying it will help reduce unintended pregnancies, and abortions, in Massachusetts.

"This is an important public health victory," said Melissa Kogut, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, an abortion rights group.

According to Parker, Catholic teaching recognizes the legitimacy of interrupting a woman’s ovulatory cycle through the use of contraceptive drugs as part of a comprehensive and caring response to sexual assault. “Rape is an act of aggression and a woman has a moral right to prevent pregnancy as a further consequence of that aggression,” she said

"However, in some cases contraceptive drugs will be administered after the woman has already conceived new human life. Thus, depending on the timing of a woman's cycle, these drugs may act instead to cause an abortion," she said.

By mandating that contraceptives be offered in every assault case, the standard of care proposed by the bill squarely conflicts with Church teaching and would interfere with the ability of Catholic hospitals to follow that teaching that requires testing for the possibility of pregnancy before offering drugs that pose the risk of an abortion.

Senate Bill 546 would override this concern by forcing Catholic hospitals to ignore the risk of pregnancy.

The bill would also authorize pharmacists to dispense so-called “morning after” contraceptives without need of a doctor’s prescription. Parker said that this is dangerous, since doctors, before they write prescriptions, “take into account the patient’s entire medical history and current physical state, something that pharmacists, quite frankly, are not trained to do.”

Parker urged every Catholic to contact his or her state representative to oppose Senate Bill 546. “It’s crucial that we act now before it’s too late,” she said. “Ideologies that have no sympathy for our beliefs are being incorporated into the law in the name of the so-called right to choose,” Parker continued. If the trend is not reversed, Catholics and other conscientiously opposed groups that provide faith-based services will be denied any choice on a broad range of objectionable practices.