ANNAPOLIS Hospitals in Maryland would have to provide information about emergency contraception to all rape victims they treat under a bill that goes to a House committee soon.
“A lot of cases that would turn into decisions about abortion can be prevented by making this medication more available,’” said the bill’s sponsor, Delegate Cheryl Kagan, Montgomery County Democrat.
The state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene would determine whether hospitals must provide the treatment or a referral.
Mrs. Kagan said the biggest problem is that many women don’t know about emergency contraception or how it works.
New emergency-contraception treatments called “morning-after pills” involve taking a double dose of birth-control medication. The newest treatment consists of two pills containing the hormone progestin. An older one combines estrogen and progestin and requires two doses of two pills.
Intrauterine devices also can be used.
The hormone pills disrupt a woman’s cycle and avert pregnancy by preventing fertilization, preventing or delaying ovulation, or preventing eggs from being implanted.
The pills are most effective when taken within 12 hours of intercourse and must be taken within 72 hours to be effective at all.
Under the bill, all hospitals would have to provide medical information about the use and risks of emergency contraception, but each would propose its own protocol.
The bill requires the state health department to set a minimum standard. The department could decide to require all hospitals to dispense the treatment to rape victims who request it or refer them to providers.
But Maryland traditionally avoids creating laws and rules that would make persons violate their religious beliefs.
The Maryland Catholic Conference opposed legislation Mrs. Kagan sponsored last year that would have required hospitals to provide rape victims both emergency-contraception information and the treatment or a referral, if requested.
The former chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee never brought the bill to a vote.
Catholic conference lobbyist Richard Dowling said he’s concerned that this year’s bill also could make religious institutions “involve themselves in procedures that violate their protocols.”
Mr. Dowling said he would rather have elected officials, not bureaucrats, decide such controversial matters.
In Virginia last week, a bill that would have allowed pharmacists to give the “morning-after pill” directly to women was killed by a House committee on the same day the Senate approved it.
Pharmacists are allowed to prescribe and dispense emergency contraception in Alaska, California and Washington state, where they are trained about its use.
The 15 Maryland hospitals that already provide emergency-contraception information and treatment are specially equipped to treat and gather evidence from sexual-assault victims.
If taken by a pregnant woman, emergency-contraception pills do not harm a fetus, said Roberta Geidner-Antoniotti, a family-planning activist and executive of Women’s Capital Corp., manufacturer of the progestin-only treatment.
With the hormone pills, some women suffer brief periods of nausea and vomiting.
If approved, the law would go into effect Jan. 1, 2003.