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Safety first: nurse practicioner Rena Rovere. Photo: Chris Shields

Reproductive Common Ground
A new law requiring hospitals to provide emergency contraception to rape victims has earned the support of family-planning advocates and the Roman Catholic church

A couple of years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine a New York law involving contraception upon which both the Roman Catholic Church and reproductive-health advocates could agree.

But contraception following rape involves different sensibilities, and considerably different semantics, than contraception involving consensual sexual partners. Thus, with the passage of the Emergency Contraception for Rape Victims law just before the Legislature recessed for the summer, New York is expected to become one of four states that will require hospitals to provide emergency contraception to rape victims.

The new law would take effect four months after the bill is signed. As of this writing, Gov. George Pataki had not signed the bill, but is expected to do so soon, say those who worked for its passage.

“It won’t hit any logjam,” predicted Rena Rovere, a nurse practitioner who runs the sexual-assault forensic program at Albany Medical Center. Under the program—the only one in Albany County—specially trained medical staff use forensic techniques to evaluate victims of sexual assault and collect evidence that can be used in court.

“You have a one-time opportunity to collect evidence,” Rovere said. “This is a living crime scene.”

Albany Medical Center has been providing rape victims with emergency contraception for at least 15 years, Rovere said. It turns out that many, but not all, hospitals around the state have been doing the same.

In a recent survey of 196 New York hospitals conducted by Family Planning Advocates of New York State and the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault, 165 hospitals reported that they provided emergency contraception to rape victims. Twenty-eight hospitals reported that they do not provide it, and three others that generally provide it allow exceptions for doctors who object.

Reproductive-health advocates say the survey turned out to be a powerful tool in making their case for the bill.

“One hospital is one too many,” said JoAnn Smith, president and CEO of Family Planning Advocates, of the gap in services. “We think 1,000 women in New York State a year were walking away—if they could walk—from an emergency room without the services they needed.”

Getting the pills elsewhere, for rape victims as well as for the hapless consensual couple who just discovered the condom broke during lovemaking, is more difficult than you might think. Family physicians are sometimes reluctant to write prescriptions for the drugs, often out of ignorance about how they should be used. Pharmacies may not stock the drugs or tell women about them.

“In Washington State, it’s over-the-counter,” said Albany Med’s Rovere. “You ask the pharmacist, just as you would ask about the condoms: ‘Where is the emergency contraception?’ This is so safe. There are so many abortions of married women who could have had emergency contraception.”

Doctors sometimes believe that the drugs can harm an embryo or cause an abortion, even though research indicates that they don’t do either, Rovere said. Emergency contraception works by stopping fertilization, or by stopping the fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus, before a pregnancy has started.

But that’s where it got tricky for the New York State Catholic Conference, which objected to language in the bill that “did not leave any discretion for physicians or hospitals dispensing the medication—if it was demanded, it had to be given,” said Dennis Poust, a conference spokesman.

“Even though the makers of the drug say it won’t (harm an embryo), it’s certainly not good for a pregnancy,” Poust said.

This isn’t the first time the conference has objected to a bill addressing contraception. Two years ago, the conference bitterly opposed the Women’s Health and Wellness Act, which requires employers to provide insurance coverage for birth control, but does allow some exemptions for religious reasons. The conference didn’t think the exemptions were broad enough to satisfy its objection to birth control, and sued the state to get the law overturned. That dispute is still in court.

Catholic teaching does allow a rape victim to use emergency contraception, however, and Poust notes that a number of Catholic hospitals already provide it. But Catholic hospitals will not give emergency contraception if the fertilized egg has already implanted—hence, the conference’s insistence on language that guaranteed hospitals the right to do a pregnancy test first.

Reproductive-health advocates downplay the significance of the language change, pointing out that no doctor would give emergency contraception without a pregnancy test anyhow, because a pregnant patient is past the point where the drug can help. Instead, they focus on the fact that the new law will provide a uniform standard of treatment.

“We knew prior to this survey that there were some hospitals that were not providing pregnancy prophylactics for sexual-assault survivors,” said Anne Liske, executive director of New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “It wasn’t a sectarian/nonsectarian issue. I think the survey just showed the numbers.”

—Darryl McGrath

We’re Getting Steamed
Environmental groups put Pataki’s feet to the fire over his dragging them on global-warming initative

More than two years after Gov. George E. Pataki pledged to fight global warming with the creation of his Greenhouse Gas Task Force, dissatisfied environmental groups are turning up the heat.

When forming the task force in June 2001, Pataki pledged to be a national leader in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and a number of environmental groups took note. But those who did quickly became critics when Pataki, rather than pushing for legislation, invited other states throughout the Northeast to join in the fight against greenhouse-gas emissions, a stalling technique to put off doing what needs to be done, said Jason K. Babbie, an environmental policy analyst with New York Public Interest Research Group.

“If [Pataki] wants to indeed be a national leader, he needs to act,” said Babbie. “He should really be leading by example.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council, NYPIRG, and Environmental Advocates of New York held a press conference on June 15 with two objectives in mind: to illustrate current global-warming policies in New York state and to assert what they feel should be the next step on Pataki’s agenda.

Babbie said Pataki should follow the recommendations made by the task force, especially the carbon dioxide cap on power plants. According to the task force, carbon dioxide emission could be capped to 25 percent of its 1990 level, which would avoid 1.42 million tons of greenhouse-gas emissions per year by 2010 with virtually no impact on utility rates. However, it recommends only a 5-percent decrease in carbon dioxide emission levels from the 1990 level by 2010 and a 10-percent decrease by 2020.

In all, the task force made 27 recommendations, and Tom Peterson, director of analysis for the Center for Clean Air Policy, said a few of the recommendations would be vital to reducing carbon-dioxide emission throughout the state.

The task force recommended continuing state funding for municipalities and organizations working toward energy- efficient housing and businesses, and creating gas-emission standards for passenger vehicles. The task force’s most notable proposal, Peterson said, would be to require that a percentage of in-state electricity generation come from renewable sources.

“Our reaction then, and during, the whole task-force process was a regional cap [on greenhouse gas emissions] would be wonderful,” said Anne Reynolds, air and energy program director with Environmental Advocates New York, “but what we need is a state to take concrete action.”

Although Reynolds hopes the other states agree with the recommendations and the process of rule-making would begin, she concedes that it is not likely. What will probably happen, according to Reynolds, is that the states expressing interest will work with New York in another round of analysis, similar to the Greenhouse Gas Task Force’s two-year study.

Of the task force’s recommendations, the carbon cap for the power (utilities) sector and the transportation actions would cut pollution the most, Reynolds said.

“We’re going to continue to remind [Pataki] that this is what New Yorkers want,” said Babbie, who asserts that NYPIRG will maintain its work with environmental groups to pressure the Pataki administration to take action.

Pataki’s press office and the Department of Environmental Conservation failed to return multiple calls to comment for this story.

The 10 northeastern states invited to join New York in passing a carbon dioxide emission cap were asked to respond by July 23. As of press time on that day, there was no information on the states’ verdict.

—Jennifer Schulkind

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