- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2001

ANNAPOLIS Catholic organizations spoke against a proposal yesterday that advocates say could prevent thousands of abortions in the state.

The measure would require all hospitals and health care facilities in the state to provide information about emergency contraception as well as contraception itself or a referral to get it when they treat rape or incest victims.

The service already is provided at 15 hospitals in the state that are specially equipped to treat and gather evidence from sexual-assault victims.

"Time is of the essence; many clinics are not open on Saturday and Sunday when most of these incidents occur," said Judith DeSarno, president of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association.

The measure would make it easier for victims to obtain medication essentially a high-dose version of the birth-control pill, but not the controversial RU-486 pill that has been available for 30 years but few women know about, said the bill's sponsor, Delegate Cheryl Kagan, Montgomery County Democrat.

When the medication, which consists of two pills taken 12 hours apart, is taken within 12 hours of intercourse it is 99.5 percent effective, but it must be taken within 72 hours, advocates stress.

Chances of pregnancy increase 50 percent if the pills are taken more than 12 hours after the assault, they said.

"It's safe, effective and underutilized," said Ronald Orleans, medical director of Capital Women's Care, a physician's group that operates in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

But the pills aren't the only emergency contraception covered by the bill. Licensed health care facilities would be required to provide any federally approved drug or device "that prevents pregnancy after sexual intercourse."

Health care providers wouldn't be required to dispense contraceptive medication or devices, but would have to provide victims information and a referral to a provider who would dispense them.

But that "conscience clause" didn't satisfy the Maryland Catholic Conference or the Catholic Medical Association.

Dr. Louis C. Breschi, a urologist testifying for the Catholic Medical Association, said the move would violate long tradition of not forcing health care providers or institutions to violate religious or moral beliefs on contraception or abortion.

"Catholic institutions don't oppose government's rights to establish policy" but do object to government abridging their religious liberty, Dr. Breschi said.

The Roman Catholic Church opposes all forms of artificial birth control and teaches that conception begins at fertilization. And some contraceptive methods to be made available under the bill could prevent fertilized eggs from becoming implanted.

"The church's position is that if there's no evidence of conception," contraceptives could be administered, said Jeff Caruso, testifying for the Maryland Catholic Conference.

However, Mr. Caruso said the conference is concerned the measure would "invite abuse" by women who could claim rape to get free contraception.

Both houses of the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill that would have made the emergency contraceptives available without a prescription, but differences in the House and Senate versions were not resolved before that legislature's session ended last month.

While Virginia is considered in many respects to be more politically conservative than Maryland, Maryland has a higher proportion of Catholics.

About 40 percent of members of the Maryland General Assembly list their religious affiliation as Roman Catholic.

• • •

A Maryland legislative committee heard testimony yesterday on a bill that would give mothers the right to breast-feed their babies in public places.

The sponsor, Delegate Daniel Morhaim, Baltimore County Democrat, said he was approached by a constituent who was asked to leave a store while she was discreetly feeding her baby.

Dr. Morhaim, a physician, said the state needs to encourage breast-feeding because it is better for babies and mothers as well less expensive than formula feeding. He said babies who are breast-fed have fewer problems with ear infections and allergies. And Dr. Morhaim said mothers who nurse their children are less likely to develop breast cancer.

Several lawmakers said they and their constituents might be offended or made uncomfortable by women breast-feeding in restaurants, malls and other public places. One said he feared legal protection for breast exposure would encourage some women who want to expose their chests.

Mothers supporting the practice said women generally manage to breast-feed in public without exposing themselves, but that babies occasionally kick blankets off. Some women said the public needs to see the process as normal not erotic.

• • •

Maryland's renowned emergency medical system will have to start cutting back lifesaving services unless the state provides more money, legislators were told yesterday.

Witnesses, including hospital officials, urged two House committees to approve a measure adding $6 to the $16 fee Marylanders currently pay every two years when they renew motor vehicle registrations.

Without that additional funding, "we will be forced to make significant cuts," said Robert Bass, executive director of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.

The current $16 registration fee helps pay for state police medical helicopters, shock-trauma centers and local ambulance and rescue squads.

The higher fee would generate an extra $13 million a year.

The committee also heard testimony on another bill that would increase the fines for traffic violations by $20, raising an extra $10 million a year for the system.

The proposal to add $6 to the registration surcharge was supported by police agencies, health care representatives, fire departments and local governments.

But the most compelling testimony came from Patrick Tuttle and his daughter, Michelle, who was severely injured in an automobile accident 10 months ago near her home in Jarrettsville.

Michelle told committee members she would not be alive without the emergency medical system and declared herself "a living, breathing, talking and walking miracle."

Mr. Tuttle struggled to control his emotions as he talked about how his daughter would not have survived without the quick response of emergency crews and the care she received from the trauma center staff.

"Pray to God you never need it," he said. "We did. They were there."


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