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Monday, Dec. 31, 2007

Historic Vote on Compassionate Care for Rape Victims

Success in the state Assembly—finally

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It took six years, but advocates for sexual assault survivors scored a major victory last week when the state Assembly voted 56-41 in support of new hospital protocols for women who seek medical attention in emergency rooms.

“It was historic,” said Sara Finger, director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health.



The bill, dubbed the Compassionate Care for Rape Victims Act, requires hospitals to provide rape survivors with information about and access to emergency contraception (EC), if the woman requests it. The state Senate passed its version of the bill in May on a 27-6 vote.



On Tuesday, the Assembly defeated three amendments that would have gutted the original bill, and voted in favor of an amendment that preserved its original intent. But it’s being held for an up-or-down vote slated for mid-January, as part of what Finger called a stalling tactic by the bill’s opponents.



But she and other health advocates are predicting a greater win in January.



“We expect a larger margin to vote for the final bill,” Finger said.



Only one Democrat—state Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer of Manitowoc—opposed the bill. Eleven Republicans supported it.



“This isn’t a partisan issue,” said Nicole Safar, legal and policy analyst for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin.



Safar said the bill’s years-long journey was due to the political makeup of the state Legislature—until this January, both the state Assembly and Senate were in the hands of conservative Republicans. But the bill was championed by state Rep. Terry Musser (R-Black River Falls), who bucked his party’s leadership and moved the bill forward.



Safar said the bill also stalled because few people truly understood the issue.



“It’s been a long learning curve for a lot of people,” Safar said.



Finger said that polling shows that about 80% of Wisconsin residents favor the bill, yet a survey conducted last year found that only about a third of emergency rooms in the state provide rape survivors with EC. The American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians recommend that physicians provide sexual assault survivors with EC upon request.



EC prevents a woman from becoming pregnant if taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse. It does not affect an implanted egg, so it doesn’t interfere with an already existing pregnancy. Nor is it a “chemical abortion,” as religious conservatives argue, because it prevents a pregnancy from taking place—it doesn’t terminate one.



Amanda Harrington, a Milwaukee native who testified on behalf of the bill, said that the highest concern of health care providers should be the health and well-being of their patients, especially those who have survived such a traumatic experience as rape. Harrington, who survived a sexual assault while studying in Italy a few years ago, said that preventing a pregnancy wasn’t foremost in her mind when she sought medical care after the assault. But, in hindsight, Harrington said she was glad that health care providers were looking out for all of her needs.



“The first thing the nurse asked me was whether I wanted emergency contraception,” Harrington said.



She said she was shocked to find out that EC isn’t routinely offered to rape survivors in Wisconsin.



“I was pretty amazed that one of the only things that the hospital in Italy got right wasn’t happening here in Wisconsin,” Harrington said.







Efforts to Weaken the Bill



But despite the popular support for providing the survivors of sexual assault with a full range of care, Assembly Republicans sought to weaken the bill last Tuesday by offering amendments that would completely gut it.



“It’s disappointing that there was such a fight until the end,” Harrington said. “It feels like there’s no urgency on their end [to assist rape victims]. But these stalling tactics are kind of insulting to those who have survived a sexual assault.”



The first amendment was offered by Rep. Daniel LeMahieu (R-Cascade), which would have exempted hospitals from offering information about EC to rape survivors based on “moral or religious grounds.” That was rejected.



A second amendment was offered by Rep. Robin Vos (R-Racine) and Rep. Mark Gottlieb (R-Port Washington) that would exempt individuals “if the action is contrary to the individual’s religious beliefs or moral convictions.” That, too, was rejected.



A third amendment—offered by Gottlieb, Vos, LeMahieu and Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette)—would have required parental notification if the rape survivor is under the age of 16.



But, as Sara Finger pointed out, many young rape survivors are the victims of incest, and getting permission from one’s attacker could be not only problematic, but cruel.



That amendment was also voted down.



An attempt in May by state Rep. Mark Gundrum (R-New Berlin) to gut the bill was also discarded by the Assembly.



Only two groups opposed the bill, Pro-Life Wisconsin and Wisconsin Family Action Inc.



Wisconsin Family Action is led by Julaine Appling, who was instrumental in the push to add an anti-same-sex marriage and civil union amendment to the state constitution. Appling refused the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article, but in a prepared statement given to the Assembly in September, she testified: “This harsh, rigid mandate would force hospitals and their staff members who object to so-called ‘emergency contraception’ on religious or moral grounds to violate their consciences and religious beliefs or face a draconian penalty.”



Matt Sande, director of legislation for Pro-Life Wisconsin, did not respond to the Shepherd’s request for comment. But in a Dec. 10 press statement, Sande asked the Assembly to oppose the bill, saying that the value of a potential embryo is more important than a rape survivor’s wishes.



“We must act with restraint in protecting newly conceived life,” Sande said.



Sande told reporters after the vote that he felt the bill would be voted down in January.



“Final passage is not assured,” he said.

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