HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania is the latest battleground in a national campaign by abortion activists directed at Catholic hospitals. The goal? To persuade state legislatures to force Catholic hospitals to dispense the contraceptive known as Plan B.
Catholic bioethics experts suggest the abortion lobby and its allies have an underlying agenda: The drug’s pro-abortion promoters hope to eradicate the religious freedom rights of Catholics to set their own policies at Catholic medical institutions.
According to Dan O’Brien, vice president of ethics for St. Louis-based Ascension Health, which operates 65 Catholic acute care hospitals, said that 15 states have now passed legislation regarding hospitals’ provision of Plan B to rape victims.
Three other states — Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin — are actively considering proposed bills.
“We are opposed to the bill, unless it is amended with appropriate conscience-exception language,” Amy Beisel, director of communications for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said about the proposed legislation in her state.
Plan B delivers a high dose of the same hormones used in oral contraceptives. The drug, whose primary effect is to prevent ovulation, is designed to be administered as an emergency contraceptive up to 72 hours after sexual intercourse.
But according to some scientific research, the drug may cause an abortion if dispensed to a woman who has already conceived but whose new child has not yet implanted in the womb.
Because of that danger, some Catholic hospitals have set up protocols regarding the use of Plan B, employing ovulation tests to reduce the possibility of causing an abortion when it is administered as an emergency contraceptive.
Prominent pro-abortion organizations such as NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU claim that Plan B has no abortifacient effect — but they are leading the campaign to force hospitals to administer it to rape victims without ovulation testing and without conscience clauses allowing Catholic institutions and medical personnel to refuse to provide it.
The abortion lobby efforts have succeeded in many states. In September, Connecticut’s bishops announced a policy of “reluctant compliance” with a new state law requiring hospitals to dispense Plan B to rape victims who request it, without an ovulation test.
The Connecticut bishops, who had fought unsuccessfully against the bill’s passage, were criticized by some pro-lifers for stating that it was not intrinsically immoral for Catholic hospitals and medical personnel to comply with the legislation.
John Haas, president of the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center, said the debate over the merits of the bishops’ statement has diverted attention from the fact that abortion activists again succeeded in utilizing Plan B legislation to undermine the autonomy of Catholic medical institutions.
“This is part of a concerted national action against the Church,” said Haas. “This is coming up in one legislature after another after another.”
In December 2004, the ACLU’s national office published a “Reproductive Freedom Briefing Paper” outlining the strategy and tactics the abortion movement is employing in its Plan B campaign.
The ACLU paper was produced in consultation with Catholics for a Free Choice, an abortion lobby group that has been denounced by the U.S. bishops’ conference for falsely claiming to be an authentically Catholic organization. NARAL, Planned Parenthood and several other prominent pro-abortion groups also were involved in producing the ACLU paper.
NARAL’s website monitors bills to mandate access to Plan B for rape victims as part of its state-by-state tracking of pending “pro-choice” legislation. NARAL also devotes a section of its website to promoting a federal bill that would deny federal funds to hospitals that don’t provide mandatory Plan B access to rape victims.
NARAL affiliates have lobbied aggressively in Connecticut and other states where Plan B legislation has been debated, as have Planned Parenthood affiliates. In Connecticut, the pro-abortion lobbyists cited a hard-line Plan B bill passed earlier in neighboring Massachusetts as a precedent that should direct Connecticut legislators to reject provisions that would protect Catholics against possible participation in abortions.
“In 2005, Massachusetts … mandated that emergency rooms provide information about emergency contraception (EC) to all sexual assault survivors and EC itself upon request,” Colin Moore, an official with the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said in testimony last March to a Connecticut legislative committee. “Planned Parenthood, along with other advocacy groups, worked hard to defeat attempts to weaken the bill, which included, among other things, proposed refusal clauses and referrals to other hospitals.”
Added Moore, “We are proud that the law as passed contained none of these delays. Provision of EC to sexual assault survivors proved to be a clear example of ‘common ground’ which legislators from across the choice spectrum could agree.”
Pennsylvania Catholic Conference spokeswoman Beisel acknowledged that events in other states were influencing the debate in Pennsylvania, as well.
Said Beisel, “The proponents have looked at what was done in many other states, and they have been discussing what’s been done in other states, and they’ve looked at what’s going on in Connecticut.”
Tom Davis is an attorney in Connecticut and a deacon in the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church who has closely monitored the Plan B issue. He said a sophisticated “abortion access project” is moving across the nation targeting jurisdictions where Plan B legislation can be passed, thereby undermining the right of Catholic medical institutions to set their own policies.
Earlier this year in Colorado, a state where pro-abortion groups judged they could not win support for a harsh law like those passed in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the abortion activists instead lobbied successfully for a Plan B law that requires hospitals to simply inform rape victims that the medication exists.
“The proponents of Plan B, and the proponents of abortion access, are very clever, very well financed, and plan very well,” said Deacon Davis, who appeared before the Connecticut legislative committee to argue against its Plan B bill.
As abortion activists continue to make incremental gains in their Plan B campaign, Deacon Davis said “it opens up the specter of more invasive control” over Catholic hospitals. He speculated the next step could be a campaign requiring hospital emergency rooms to provide rape victims with the RU-486 abortion drug, to be used if Plan B fails to prevent pregnancy.
Deacon Davis said that a key lesson to be learned from Connecticut is that it’s crucial for lay Catholics to mobilize in support of their bishops to prevent passage of problematic legislation. Catholics in states like Pennsylvania must learn about the scientific uncertainty regarding Plan B’s possible abortifacient effect, show up at legislative hearings to argue the Catholic case against mandating automatic provision of the drug, and communicate to their elected representatives that it’s not acceptable to vote for anti-Catholic bills, he said.
“We need them at those hearings, and they’ve got to be informed,” Deacon Davis said. “It’s not particularly easy to do, but it’s within the capability of anyone with a high school education to learn those issues, to learn them well and be vocal about them.”
Tom McFeely is based in Victoria, British Columbia.
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