NEW YORK - New York is poised to become the fourth state to require hospitals to offer emergency contraception to rape victims, but a campaign to extend the policy nationwide faces tough opposition.
Particularly wary are Roman Catholic hospitals, whose administrators worry the requirements might in some cases conflict with their refusal to perform abortions.
With Gov. George Pataki expected to sign a bill within days, New York will join California, Washington and New Mexico in requiring hospitals to provide access to emergency contraceptives. But bills pending in Congress that would impose the requirement nationally do not appear to be a priority for the Republican leadership.
"Our opponents try to frame this as an abortion issue, but it's not - it's a crime victims' issue," said Destiny Lopez, who lobbied for the New York bill on behalf of the state chapter of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.
No national statistics exist on hospital policies regarding emergency contraceptives, but NARAL and its allies say surveys from several states indicate fewer than half of hospitals routinely offer the so-called morning-after pills to rape victims.
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America estimates 300,000 U.S. women are sexually assaulted each year, with about 25,000 becoming pregnant. More than 80 percent of these pregnancies could be prevented with use of emergency contraceptives, Planned Parenthood contends.
Although Catholic doctrine forbids the use of contraceptives in marital intercourse, Catholic hospitals are permitted to administer the morning-after pill to rape victims - but not if the medical staff determines fertilization has occurred.
The most common form of emergency contraception is a set of pills to be taken in two doses, 12 hours apart, as soon as possible after unprotected intercourse. They prevent fertilization and are different from the abortion pill RU-486, though Planned Parenthood says most American women know little about them.
The Rev. Michael Place, president of the Catholic Health Association, said the 600-plus hospitals under his purview strive to provide rape victims with "the full range of compassionate, effective medical care."
However, he said, the advocacy groups pushing for mandatory emergency-contraception access were trying to force Catholic medical personnel to compromise their beliefs on abortion.
"They're using a legitimate objective to pursue another agenda - to change the definition of when life begins," Place said.
In New York, the Catholic hierarchy dropped its opposition to the bill after language was added allowing hospitals to withhold the contraceptive drugs from women who might have become pregnant.
Once that happened, the bill sailed through, even winning unanimous backing in the Republican-controlled Senate after GOP leaders accepted that it was not an abortion rights measure.
"The women of New York will no longer face Russian roulette when they seek care after they've been raped," family planning advocate JoAnn Smith said.
Lopez said it marked a rare opportunity for abortion rights advocates to find common ground with antiabortion politicians.
"We all want to lower the abortion rate. With emergency contraception, this is our best chance to do it," she said.
The bills pending in the U.S. House and Senate have bipartisan support, but Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa., chief sponsor of the House measure, says winning passage will be "tough sledding."