People should know about emergency contraception

February 26, 2002|By Susan Reimer

"BEACH WEEK," the May migration of high school seniors to Ocean City, is a rite of passage - for both parents and children.

Beach Week is when a bunch of high school kids crowd, unsupervised, into a rental unit for a week of having their parents at least two hours away.

Back at home, parents wring their hands and pray that the phone does not ring with a request for bail money.

The best-case scenario is that the seniors come back from the beach suffering from too much sun and too little sleep.

The worst-case scenario usually involves alcohol or the police. Or sex.

I have made it my business over the last couple of years to pick out a couple of really responsible seniors and tell them all about the so-called "morning-after pill."

I choose them because these are the kids other kids are likely to go to if something bad happens to them.

I tell them that someone they know is going to have unprotected sex during Beach Week and wake up, or come to, the next morning in a panic.

"If they come to you, you need to know what to do to help them," I say.

It is called emergency contraception, I say. You can go to a hospital emergency room and ask for it. It is not RU-486. It is not an "abortion pill." It is a sort of extra-strength birth control pill. It disrupts a woman's cycle. It delays or prevents ovulation so that an egg isn't available to be fertilized, or it prevents an egg from implanting in the uterus.

The "morning-after pill" doesn't have to be taken the morning after to be effective. A woman has 72 hours, although its effectiveness lessens with each hour. But she doesn't have to wait until her period is 10 days late to know if she has a problem.

You don't have to go to an emergency room to get emergency contraception. You can get a prescription for it online at www.getthepill.com, by calling Maryland's 24-hour hotline (877-99-GO4EC) or through Planned Parenthood Clinics. For information, you can go to www.not-2-late.com.

If one of your friends is dumb enough or drunk enough or inexperienced enough or unlucky enough to have sex without protection, I say, this is information you need if you are going to help her when she comes to you in tears the next day.

You can argue that this isn't an appropriate conversation to have with teen-aged girls, and you would have your head in the sand.

But I don't think you can argue that this isn't an appropriate conversation to have with a rape or incest victim, and yet many Maryland hospitals do not.

A bill in the Maryland legislature this session would require that all hospitals give rape or incest victims oral and written information about emergency contraception.

"The type of health care that a crime victim receives should not depend on what hospital she stumbles into after she's raped," said the bill's sponsor, Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Kagan introduced a stronger bill last year that would have required hospitals to either provide emergency contraception to rape and incest victims or refer them to someone who would.

That bill died in committee, despite the compelling testimony of rape victims who described in horrifying terms what it was like to find out they had become pregnant as the result of a rape.

This year, Kagan is offering a watered-down version of the bill, one that would only require that hospitals present victims with information about EC, as it is called.

Though a modest requirement, it is an important one, because a Kaiser Family Foundation study reported that only 11 percent of women even know that EC exists.

Hearings on the bill have been tentatively scheduled for March 14, and already the Maryland Catholic Conference has made its opposition known.

Kagan feels particularly betrayed because she crafted the bill's language to match a similar law passed in Illinois - one that had the blessing of the Catholic Conference in that state.

"I am very surprised that the bill that the Illinois Catholic Conference helped write is still not good enough for the Maryland Catholic Conference," Kagan said.

"Their own health directives [approved by the National Conference of Bishops] say that rape victims deserve compassionate care and that emergency contraception may be dispensed.

"There is precedent under their own guidelines."

Kagan believes that she and the bill's opponents have the same goal: to reduce the number of abortions.

Emergency contraception does that by blocking a pregnancy, not ending it. This is not an abortion pill, and Kagan's bill is not an abortion bill.

It is a bill that mandates the minimum amount of information that must be given to a woman who is a victim of rape or incest. It would not put the pill in her hand.

I cannot believe there is a legislator in Annapolis who would oppose the dissemination of health care information to a woman who has been the victim of a violent crime.

But just in case there is, go to the Maryland General Assembly Web site, http://mlis.state.md.us/, punch in your address, find your legislator and call or send an e-mail explaining how you feel.

Or call Montgomery County Democrat John Herson, chairman of the Environmental Matters Committee where the bill sits, and tell him what you think. His phone number is 800-492-7122, Ext. 3534, and his fax number is 410-841-3409.

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