NEW YORK – Scores of advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (search) and Planned Parenthood (search), assailed new Justice Department guidelines for treating rape victims Thursday because the detailed procedures make no mention of emergency contraception as an option that could spare some women an unwanted pregnancy.
The result is "a glaring omission in an otherwise thorough document," the groups said in a letter sent to Diane Stuart, director of the Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women (search).
Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, called the omission "a blatant example of politics taking precedence over the emotional and physical health needs of women." Her organization, and other groups, contend that information about emergency contraception was included in an early draft of the guidelines, then removed from the final version because of political concerns.
A Justice Department spokesman, Eric Holland, said Stuart's office had received the protest letter and would "review its contents carefully." The department offered no immediate comment on the specifics of the complaints.
Many major medical groups support the use of emergency contraception, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (search) recommends that it be offered to all sexual assault victims who are at risk of pregnancy. But many conservative groups contend that use of emergency contraception can be a form of abortion in cases where fertilization has already occurred.
More than 300,000 women are raped annually in the United States. Planned Parenthood said about 25,000 of these women become pregnant because of the assault, and nearly 90 percent of those pregnancies could be prevented if victims had prompt access to emergency contraception.
Commonly known as morning-after pills, emergency contraceptives are a stronger dose of regular birth control pills. They are considered highly effective up to 72 hours after unprotected sex.
The ACLU, in a recent study of 11 states, found that many emergency care facilities do not routinely provide emergency contraception to rape victims. Results varied from lows of 6 percent of facilities in Louisiana and 8 percent in Idaho to highs of 80 percent in New Hampshire and 85 percent in New York.
Some states require hospitals to assist victims in obtaining emergency contraception; other states allow medical personal to withhold such services for reasons of conscience. The Justice Department said the new, first-of-their-kind guidelines were not intended to supersede state policies.
The step-by-step guidelines were released last fall after input from criminal justice and health experts, with the aim of ensuring that victims receive high-quality medical and forensic services.
The 130-page document includes extensive suggestions for coping with the possibility of sexually transmitted disease, but only one sentence on pregnancy prevention: "Discuss treatment options with patients, including reproductive health services."
The protest letter calls for the guidelines to be revised to specify that victims should be offered emergency contraception as routine policy.
"It is time for policy-makers to stop heartlessly ignoring the needs of sexual assault patients," said Louise Melling, director of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project. "There is no excuse for not doing whatever we can to ensure that women can prevent pregnancy."
Among the 205 groups signing the letter were the American Association of University Women, Catholics for a Free Choice (search), the Episcopal Church USA (search), NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Council of Jewish Women (search) and the National Organization for Women.