updated 3/28/2006 11:44:02 AM ET 2006-03-28T16:44:02

A growing number of states are considering laws that would require hospitals to provide emergency contraception to rape victims, drawing criticism from supporters of the Roman Catholic Church, which likens the morning-after pill to abortion.

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Seven states already require all hospitals to dispense the drug, which helps prevent a pregnancy within 72 hours of sex. A dozen states are considering similar legislation.

The laws would include hospitals affiliated with the Catholic Church, which teaches that life begins at conception. Opponents say states are attempting to force those hospitals to go against their beliefs.

Advocates say the legislation is needed because some hospitals don’t tell rape victims about the drug, also known as Plan B, or refuse to distribute it.

“Over the last 10 years, women’s health professionals and activists have come to realize that rape victims are being subjected to a kind of Russian roulette health care when they go to hospitals,” said Lois Utley, director of the Merger Watch Project, a New York-based group that fights religious-based restrictions on patient rights and health care.

The disagreement blurs some church-state lines.

Connecticut’s victim advocate lobbied against the proposal, calling it an assault on religious freedom. His testimony before the General Assembly prompted the state’s lieutenant governor to call for his resignation.

“I see this for what it is. It is not a victims’ rights issue. It is not a victims’ services issue,” said James Papillo, a Catholic deacon. “The issue is an attack on the Catholic institutions.”

At the direction of the state’s archbishop, Connecticut’s four Catholic hospitals established in January a policy of not prescribing Plan B if a rape victim is ovulating or one of her eggs has been fertilized. The policy was modeled after one in Peoria, Ill.

“We believe that rape victims deserve compassionate and competent medical care,” said Deirdre McQuade, director of planning and information for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Bishops. “But we disagree on what proper medical care is.”

The Plan B bill in Connecticut died in committee last week, but proponents are hoping to resurrect it later this session.

Advocates say Arizona, Hawaii, Illinois, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin this year have also considered proposals that would require hospitals to dispense the morning-after pill.

Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina and Washington already require hospitals to dispense it.

Plan B, manufactured by Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc., works like a regular birth control pill by stopping the release of an egg from the ovary. It may also prevent fertilization and prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus.

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice in Washington, D.C., said the idea of testing a rape victim to determine if she is ovulating before deciding whether to prescribe Plan B is “to the far right of any theological or medical arguments related to emergency contraception.”

“A woman who has been raped should be given comprehensive treatment in the first place she goes. She should not need to be referred for emergency contraception,” Kissling said. “If that hospital cannot provide her with the services she needs, they should be ashamed of themselves.”

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