God Squad, Catholics Mistaken on Rape
A recent “God Squad” column published in the Wausau Daily Herald addressed the fears of a young woman about to enter college who sought advice on using birth control as a preventive measure to reduce the chance of pregnancy in the event that she is assaulted.
According to a Bureau of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey, there were 247,730 rapes and sexual assaults in the United States in 2002. Since rape is a notoriously underreported crime, it is easy to see the pragmatism and diligence behind this woman’s concern.
However, instead of supporting this woman’s desire to protect herself from the threat of assault, the God Squad advised her against using birth control and failed to instruct her as to the availability of emergency contraception to prevent unintended pregnancy.
The God Squad attempted to interpret but failed to understand Catholic teaching on this matter. There is support in Catholic teaching, history and practice for the use of birth control, including emergency contraception (EC), to prevent pregnancy in the case of assault. During civil strife in the Congo in the 1960s, Catholic nuns were given permission to use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy in case they were raped. Reports indicated that nuns in Bosnia during the recent conflict were permitted to use contraceptives for the same reason.
Although it is not well known, Catholic guidelines for the treatment of rape victims permit the use of EC. The code of ethics for Catholic hospitals, written by Catholic bishops, says there should be a “compassionate response to women who have been raped,” which includes the provision of EC.
These examples should reassure the woman who sought guidance from the God Squad – and indeed, all Catholic women – that there is no contradiction between using contraceptives to protect oneself from a pregnancy that might result from rape and one’s Catholic faith.
Wisconsin, where Catholic health care is the single largest, private source of hospital care, now is thoroughly embroiled in the debate. In 2002, Catholics for a Free Choice surveyed Catholic hospitals nationwide regarding their policies regarding dispensing EC to rape survivors. Of the 35 Wisconsin Catholic hospitals responding to the survey, 17 would deny EC to rape survivors.
In her recent legal opinion that employers who provide prescription drug insurance must cover contraceptives, Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager stated that employers are not permitted to refuse coverage because of their personal religious beliefs. The opinion states that doing so would violate state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
If Catholic hospitals don’t live up to their claim to provide “compassionate and understanding care” to rape victims, then the law must. Lautenschlager has an opportunity now to enforce the civil right of women to reproductive health care including emergency contraception. She should do so, and Catholic hospitals should follow her lead in providing basic and essential health care for the women of Wisconsin.