Catholic World News News Feature

Connecticut bishops reverse stand on Plan B September 28, 2007

After fighting against the passage of a new state law requiring hospitals to provide the "emergency contraceptive" Plan B pill to rape victims, the Catholic bishops of Connecticut have announced that Catholic hospitals will comply with the law when it goes into effect next week.

The Connecticut bishops had lobbied energetically against the legislation, pointing out that the Plan B pill can cause abortion if a woman has conceived when the drug is administered. In a May 2007 letter to Governor Jodi Rell, pleading for a veto of the bill passed by the state legislature, the Connecticut bishops noted that the pill "can only act as an abortifacient" if conception has taken place.

Proponents of the Plan B protocol argue that the drug does not cause an abortion. That argument is based on the premise that pregnancy does not begin until the fertilized ovum is implanted in the mother's womb; the "emergency contraceptive" prevents that implantation, causing the destruction of the embryo.

In their May appeal to the governor, the heads of the three Connecticut dioceses-- Archbishop Henry Mansell of Hartford and Bishops William Lori of Bridgeport and Michael Cote of Norwich-- said that the proposed legislation would cause a "direct opposition to our religious belief that life begins at the moment of conception and as such is a serious violation of a basic tenet of the Catholic faith." Governor Rell signed the bill into law despite the bishops' pleas.

On September 28, however, the bishops joined with the heads of Connecticut's Catholic hospitals in announcing that the institutions would comply with the law. Barry Feldman, a spokesman for the Connecticut Catholic Conference, explained that the bishops had undergone "an evolution in thinking."

The bishops' decision reduces the likelihood of a legal confrontation over the Connecticut law. In earlier public statements the bishops had said that the law, as written, imposed unacceptable burdens on the religious freedom of Catholic institutions-- an argument that hinted at the possibility of a court challenge.

Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport said that he still hoped for changes in the law. And the bishops, in announcing plans to accept the legislation, said that their decision might be reconsidered, in light of further studies on the effects of Plan B and the arguments for administration of an ovulation test to women taking the pill.

Prior to their sudden reversal, Church leaders in Connecticut had said that the hospitals would provide Plan B only after administering an ovulation test. If ovulation had not occurred, the pill would not cause an abortion.

The bishops now say that ethicists are divided on the moral requirement for such a test. Catholic hospitals will be expected only to administer a pregnancy test, and under the terms of the state law they will not administer Plan B if the woman is pregnant.

However if the woman has ovulated, conception could occur-- and thus the drug would have an abortifacient effect-- after the administration of the pregnancy test. So many Catholic ethicists argue that the pill should not be used if ovulation has occurred. Although moralists disagree on that point, the Connecticut bishops, in their May letter to Governor Rell, had argued that the requirement of an ovulation test was based on the "more probable teaching."

The bishops now emphasize that the Church has not rendered a definitive judgment on that issue. "To administer Plan B pills without an ovulation test is not an intrinsically evil act," the bishops said in a statement released through the Connecticut Catholic Conference. "Since the teaching authority of the Church has not definitively resolved this matter and since there is serious doubt about how Plan B pills work, the Catholic bishops of Connecticut have stated that Catholic hospitals in the state may follow protocols that do not require an ovulation test in the treatment of victims of rape."

[For a further discussion of the Connecticut decision, and links to many relevant documents, see the American Papist blog.]