Jennifer Nevins is state strategies attorney at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. For more information about emergency contraception in the states, click here.
What would George W. do? When it comes to protecting rape victims from becoming pregnant as a result of assault, apparently nothing.
In September 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice issued the first-ever national protocol for treating sexual assault victims. The otherwise comprehensive document didn't include information about emergency contraception (EC). Oversight? Not likely. Press reports indicate that earlier drafts of the protocol included information about pregnancy prevention and, more specifically, EC.
Emergency contraception, often referred to as “the morning-after pill,” reduces the risk of pregnancy by as much as 89 percent if the first dose is taken within days of unprotected intercourse. The sooner it is taken, the more effective it is. So it would make perfect sense that the federal government should, at the very least, mention this safe and effective method of birth control in its guidelines for treating rape survivors.
Leading medical organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, say that EC should be offered to rape victims. If emergency facilities routinely provided EC to sexual assault survivors, up to 22,000 of the 25,000 pregnancies that result from rape each year could be prevented.
The Bush administration refused to provide earlier drafts of the guidelines for rape victims, when solicited via a Freedom of Information Act request for documents that would shed light on the omission of EC from the final protocol. Instead, it sent materials that were used to help develop the protocol. All of the included documents discuss pregnancy prevention in detail. Most either provide instructions for prescribing emergency contraception or specifically recommend that emergency contraception be offered to rape victims. Clearly, the Department of Justice made a deliberate decision to ignore these recommendations.
If the federal government is going to turn its back on survivors of sexual assault, then it is up to the states to ensure that rape victims can prevent pregnancy following an assault by giving clear guidelines to caregivers. A woman who has just survived a sexual assault is already in crisis. She should not have to face the added burden of possibly becoming pregnant as a result of rape.
Last week, sexual assault groups, legislative officials, medical groups, women’s health advocates and civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, launched a campaign to urge governors and other state officials to adopt state protocols for treating sexual assault survivors that ensure access to EC. To date, advocates have sent letters in seven states asking officials to “act where the federal government has failed to, making certain that [their state] protocol recommends victims of sexual assault be offered emergency contraception on-site in their initial exam.” The letters also urge officials to support efforts to increase funding in their state for medical staff who specialize in treating sexual assault patients.
Providing EC to rape survivors should be a no-brainer. Shamefully, the federal government, thus far, has failed to show any wisdom in this regard. States must step up to counter federal indifference and take the simple steps needed to protect women.