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All Can Unite Behind Emergency Contraception

July 21, 2003

By Lynn Grefe, Women's Enews

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of the National Organization for Women or Women's eNews.

In a country still wrestling with the issue of abortion 30 years after the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling making abortion legal, one would think that any and all efforts to enable women to prevent an unwanted pregnancy and curtail abortions would enjoy widespread support. However, that is not the case.

The most recent example is the national debate over the use and availability of emergency contraceptives, a prescribed dose of birth-control pills that, if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, reduces the risks of pregnancy by between 75 and 89 percent. Emergency contraception prevents a pregnancy but does not terminate a pre-existing pregnancy.

Most important to this debate is the fact that the use of emergency contraception is not an abortion. The emergency contraception drug has been approved as safe and effective by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and supported by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Yet, we continue to fight to have this drug readily widely available.

The two most prominent battlefields are hospital emergency rooms—where proponents believe emergency contraceptives should be made available to all rape victims—and pharmacies, where we would like to see them sold over-the-counter in all drug stores.

Few States Offer Contraception to Rape Victims

Providing emergency contraceptives to rape victims hardly seems like a subject worthy of any debate. Yet while rape victims receive treatment in hospitals to prevent HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, only three states—Illinois, Washington and California—have laws mandating that emergency contraception be available to rape victims.

Fortunately, New York will join that list this month as a result of legislation sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Susan John and Republican Senator Nick Spano. Both worked hard to turn the emergency contraceptive bill into law. Passage was led and energized by the New York State Coalition against Sexual Assault and Family Planning Advocates of New York, Inc., who conducted a statewide survey of hospital emergency rooms. The group found that 14 percent of hospitals, spread around 18 New York counties, did not provide emergency contraception to rape victims. The survey also demonstrated that this did not appear to be a sectarian issue, as 77 percent of the Catholic hospitals extended compassion and provided emergency contraception to rape victims. This information energized the formation of broader coalition, including NARAL/NY, Planned Parenthood of New York City and the New York Republican Pro-Choice Coalition. The Republican participation was essential to garner broader support among the GOP majority in the state Senate, which does not have a strong pro-choice record.

To win passage, politicians found it was important to separate emergency contraception from abortion. Educating legislators about this issue was key. Lobbyists met with one legislator at a time, followed up with their staffs and provided them with the survey. When the bill passed in the final hours of New York's legislative session on June 27, it was a victory for more than New Yorkers. The same victory could be achieved throughout the country with similar strong partnerships and energy. Female rape victims—who could be any woman or girl in this country—deserve nothing less.

Over-the-Counter Access More Difficult

Making emergency contraception available over the counter is more challenging. Currently only four states—Arkansas, California, New Mexico and Washington—allow drug stores to sell emergency contraceptives. Among the arguments against over-the-counter availability is that offering this bailout option will lead women to be lax about using contraception and young girls will become promiscuous. (Irritatingly, these arguments rarely mention the boys and men who are also integrally involved.)

It's important to push past these objections, however. Our country has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the Western industrialized world, followed by Great Britain and Canada. Our country is reported to have 42.9 pregnancies per 1000 teenage girls between the ages of 15-19. Closing our eyes to prevention and education means we ignore the realities in which our young people live. It also drives teens who do get pregnant toward the difficult and expensive last-resort choice of abortion. We should do everything possible to help women of all ages as they face such emergencies.

It is our hope that one day all women will have full access to all safe medical care as they make life choices. It will take stronger and larger coalitions among men and women of all shades of beliefs about abortion, but it can be done. Reasonable people understand the need to prepare for an emergency. Emergency contraception does just that. To deny women the opportunity to safely handle the crisis is to deny her a personal lifeline that could affect her entire future.

Lynn Grefe is a long-time advocate for women's health, former national director of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition and newly appointed chief executive officer of the National Eating Disorders Association. Women's Enews is a news service based in New York City.

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