Emergency Contraception and Death Penalty
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
February 2004

The biennial schedule of the North Dakota legislature has its advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that North Dakotans can spend the non-session year watching legislative trends in other states. Presumably, we can both prepare for similar proposals and learn from other states’ mistakes.

The happenings in neighboring states should attract particular attention. Legislators often introduce bills that were previously enacted in Minnesota, South Dakota, or Montana. Sometimes, legislators will respond to events in those states. In addition, interest groups are often arranged regionally and when they have finished advancing their agenda in one state, they will turn to the neighboring state. Taking a look around, there are a few trends that should draw our attention.

Some legislators in South Dakota have decided to climb aboard the anti-Catholic health care bandwagon by introducing a bill that would require all hospitals, including Catholic-sponsored hospitals, to provide abortifacient “emergency contraception” to rape victims. This type of bill is part of a well-organized campaign against Catholic hospitals and has appeared in several large, mostly urban, states. It has now come next door.

To appreciate the danger of this bill, it is necessary to understand the truth about both emergency contraception and the care Catholic hospitals provide to victims of sexual assault. Unfortunately, the truth is often lost in the rhetoric accompanying such bills.

Catholic hospitals do – and, in fact, are required to by Church policy – offer contraceptive services to victims of sexual assault, along with caring for the victim’s other emotional, physical, and spiritual needs. Since she is the victim of a in this case arises from a non-consensual assault, the woman has a right to protect herself from the potential conception.

However, Catholic hospitals will not knowingly perform an abortion or provide an abortifacient. Catholic hospitals will take efforts to ensure that conception has not occurred. Only if there is no evidence that conception has occurred can the victim be treated with medications that would prevent fertilization. This policy does more than protect the integrity of the Catholic facility. It also provides a true service to the woman who otherwise might terminate a life that was not a result of the assault.

The science of the early stages of reproduction and “emergency contraception” are complicated. For our purposes, it is only necessary to note a few facts. Medications generally labeled “emergency contraception” can prevent conception from occurring, which is acceptable act in the case of rape. However, they can also prevent implantation of a fertilized ovum, which, because they destroy human life, are never acceptable.

Proponents of such legislation obfuscate the distinction by talking about preventing “pregnancy.” To most people, this sounds benign. What is not said is that pregnancy is medically defined as starting with implantation of an already fertilized ovum. Life does not begin at pregnancy. It begins at conception. The South Dakota bill, for example, cleverly defines “emergency contraception” as that which “prevents pregnancy,” but never defines “pregnancy.”

Any bill that mandates the provision of abortifacients should be disturbing enough to any Catholic and pro-life person. However, such a bill should also cause serious concern for anyone concerned about religious liberties. The mere fact that a religious entity provides a public service does mean it should lose its religious identity. A Catholic hospital cannot violate core principles of the Catholic faith and still be Catholic. The proponents of such bills know that and that is why these bills are truly anti-Catholic and not just anti-life.

Turning to Minnesota, perhaps the most disturbing trend is Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s proposal to enact the death penalty. Pawlenty says that his proposal takes the “best” from states with capital punishment so that there will be no risk of executing innocent persons. He also notes – as if doing so makes the proposal more palatable – that it would be limited to certain sex offenders.

This attempt to limit the risk of error misses the point. If the death penalty is wrong, it is wrong even if the process is without error. Error only compounds the tragedy. As to whether or not it is wrong, the Church’s teaching is clear – in the present circumstances, especially in a developed society, the death penalty is unacceptable.

Minnesota’s response to Pawlenty’s proposal warrants attention. States with the death penalty are scaling back or suspending the use of capital punishment. Minnesota will be the first state in some time to consider moving in the other direction.

Let us pray that these ill winds are extinguished before they have a chance to drift into North Dakota.