Last Sunday, while commenting to a St. Louis TV station about pregnancy resulting from rape, Representative Todd Akin, a Republican from Missouri said:
“It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
I’m not going to speak about what may or may not be “legitimate rape,” nor am I going to address his claim that a woman’s body tries to prevent a pregnancy in the face of a sexual assault. I’ll leave that to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). I would like to speak about the incidence of pregnancy related to all reported rapes and what the Catholic Church tells us about treating women who have been sexually assaulted.
Statistics are difficult to find. Today a statement from ACOG stated that “each year in the US, 10,000-15,000 abortions occur among women whose pregnancies are a result of reported rape or incest. An unknown number of pregnancies are carried to term.”
What does the Church teach us about treating women who are sexually assaulted? In 2009, the US Conference of Bishops released the Fifth Edition of their Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care. Directive 36 states:
“Compassionate and understanding care should be given to a person who is the victim of sexual assault. Health care providers should cooperate with law enforcement officials and offer the person psychological and spiritual support as well as accurate medical information. A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.”
What does this mean? This means that we should strive to help all victims of sexual assault seek immediate medical attention. She should be tested immediately for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. If the patient is pregnant at the time of initial examination she has the confidence of knowing that her pregnancy is not the result of her sexual assault. If her pregnancy test is negative, she can and should be given appropriate treatment to prevent fertilization.
Most people think that the Catholic Church wants to “punish” women who are sexually assaulted and “force” them to carry to term any resultant pregnancy. Quite the contrary, the Church recognizes a victim’s right to defend herself by avoiding a pregnancy after a sexual assault. But this requires action on the part of the victim. Action she may understandably have difficulty taking. But to avoid a pregnancy resulting from a sexual assault, it becomes our duty to educate ourselves and other women and to work together to provide a safety net for victims.
What do you think? Did you know that the Catholic Church allowed for some types of emergency contraception? Does this change your view on how the Church ministers to vulnerable women?