It's reasonably well known that I have views about abortion. Abortion remains the only topic that I've ever been taken to the Media Council over (unsuccessfully, for the record). This, however, is not a column about abortion. This is a column about emergency contraception – and having enough basic human compassion to acknowledge that whatever your opinion may be about abortion, if a rape victim seeks emergency contraception after their sexual assault, they should be granted access to that essential medication by whatever qualified medical practitioner they first turn to.
It blows my mind that I even have to write about this. Particularly because having access to emergency contraception may actually prevent abortion. You'd think even opponents of abortion could get behind that. Yet the right of medical professionals to refuse to prescribe emergency contraception to rape victims is likely to be codified in law. It's part of the overhauled abortion legislation currently making its way through Parliament.
It's important to clarify the difference between emergency contraception and abortion. Emergency contraception involves taking a pill that prevents a pregnancy from happening. In the first 24 hours after an unprotected rape, there's a 95 per cent chance that pregnancy will be prevented if emergency contraception is taken correctly. It's 85 per cent effective if taken between 24-48 hours after an unprotected rape, and 58 per cent effective between 49-72 hours afterwards.
The emergency contraceptive pill works by preventing the ovary from releasing an egg and by changing the lining of the uterus. At the point when emergency contraception is taken, there is no pregnancy. It cannot undo a pregnancy. If the emergency contraception is taken too late, and a pregnancy has already started, it will not impact upon the pregnancy. And it won't affect the patient's chances of getting pregnant in the future.
I feel particularly incensed about the cruel suggestion that medical professionals should be given the lawful right to refuse emergency contraception to rape victims because I have personally had to access emergency contraception after a non-consensual sexual event. I've written before about having been "stealthed" (when a male partner removes or decides not to wear a condom without the knowledge and consent of their partner) and I needed to buy the emergency contraceptive pill at a pharmacy the next morning.
Had I been refused, I had the ability and means to drive around Auckland until I found a pharmacy that sold the medication, or a doctor or nurse who would prescribe it. Others aren't so lucky.
It's expensive to buy at the pharmacy for a start, so some may seek a prescription because they can't afford to buy it off the shelf. Women who live rurally may have only one pharmacy or doctor's surgery in their district. Others may have children or other family members to look after, or lack the transportation they need to visit alternative healthcare professionals. They may have been raped by their intimate partner, who may become suspicious if they have to go from doctor to doctor, or pharmacy to pharmacy.
They also, having just experienced one of the most traumatic events imaginable, quite understandably may not have the capacity to go to several different health professionals, reliving the horror of the reason they're there over and over again. In that moment, it's hard enough to tell one person (I lied that my "boyfriend's condom had broken" because I couldn't face having to tell a stranger about what had just happened) let alone many.
Ruth Dyson, who chaired the select committee, told the media, "we decided as a committee, if you're having conscientious objection that it was more consistent with views of those who wanted conscientious objection to have it across the board". Respectfully, I think she and her committee are wrong. Very wrong.
While I personally think that any conscientious objection to prescribing contraception (emergency or otherwise) by medical practitioners is abysmal, and wonder why they bothered joining the medical profession in the first place, surely an exception could be made for victims of sexual assault. I was under the impression that doctors were supposed to "first do no harm". I struggle to see how denying a vulnerable rape victim emergency contraception is anything but harmful.
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This is a conversation in desperate need of some logical thinking. Contraception prevents abortion. It prevents unwanted pregnancies from happening. Fewer unwanted pregnancies equals fewer abortions. It really is that simple. Opponents of abortion often rail against "women using abortion as birth control". Which makes the provision for conscientious objection against prescribing emergency contraception even more ridiculous. Women seeking emergency contraception are trying very hard to not use abortion as birth control. They're literally trying to use birth control as birth control.
If someone isn't (yet) pregnant, then how can providing them with a drug that will prevent them from becoming pregnant – but not end any existing pregnancy, should it already exist – be even in the same ballpark as abortion? It's farcical.
This provision for conscientious objection when it comes to emergency contraception for rape victims deserves to be shot down in flames. It is one of the most inhumane suggestions I've heard throughout the entire debate around abortion legislation reform. This is not about abortion, or the battle between pro-choice campaigners and the anti-abortion lobby. This is about basic human compassion. And, moreover, common sense.