Is it Ethical to Give Emergency Contraception in Catholic Hospitals?
By Chris Kahlenborn, MD
Each year, over 250,000 women get sexually assaulted in the United States, while the actual number of victims is likely far higher, considering that less than 40% of victims report their assaults. Of the women who do go to an emergency room, almost all will get a pregnancy test, and if the test is negative, almost all will receive emergency contraception, usually Plan B, which consists of a hormone called levonorgestrel, given with the hope that it will prevent pregnancy. The main ethical debate concerns the question of whether this medication works via preventing pregnancy or via ending pregnancy (i.e., an early abortion).
So what is the policy of Catholic hospitals in the United States with regard to the dispensation of emergency contraception? A few Catholic hospitals forbid its use; however, many Catholic hospitals dispense emergency contraception under certain conditions and follow the Peoria Protocol, which was invented in Peoria, Illinois, under then-bishop Myers.
Simply put, this protocol states that it is ethical to dispense emergency contraception such as Plan B to a woman who is sexually assaulted if she is not pregnant and has not yet ovulated. The premise behind the protocol is that Plan B will stop a woman from ovulating if she is about to ovulate and therefore prevent any potential pregnancy.
However, recent research has shown that giving Plan B to women who are about to ovulate does little to stop the upcoming ovulation, as noted by researchers Noe and Croxatto (2011, Contraception), who found that one could easily measure when a woman ovulates by high-tech ultrasound and noted that about 80% of the women ovulated if Plan B was given 2–5 days prior to ovulation.
So if Plan B does not effectively prevent ovulation, then how does it stop pregnancy? The answer is that these women are likely getting pregnant, but the embryo dies prior to ever implanting in the uterus—that is, an early abortion.
In light of the newest data, the Catholic Medical Association, the largest group of Catholic physicians in the United States, has published its official position on its website, concluding that the Peoria Protocol is flawed and that the dispensation of emergency contraception such as Plan B in Catholic emergency rooms is immoral.
The obvious question is, why is Plan B still being given out in Catholic hospitals’ emergency rooms?
One of the problems regarding Plan B and its mechanism of action is that it is a very technical area, so those who favor the dispensation of Plan B often make old claims that are not supported by the most current medical literature. In response, the Polycarp Research Institute has produced a video that goes into more detail and refutes these older arguments while presenting the most current evidence.
It is everyone’s hope that rape victims, whether pregnant or not, receive the most compassionate and effective care available. Unfortunately, using Plan B and continuing to cite the faulty Peoria Protocol, based upon what we now know, is simply an immoral compromise—with the unintended consequence of the loss of human life and the abandonment of truly loving and courageous Christian health care.
Dr. Chris Kahlenborn is a board certified physician of internal medicine and the president of The Polycarp Research Institute (polycarp.org). He graduated from Penn State Medical University in 1988 and has been doing research on oral contraceptives and breast cancer for the past 15 years. In addition to practicing as a hospitalist in Pennsylvania, he has lectured on this area of research in Russia, China, the Philippines, and Canada, and testified before the Federal Drug Administration in June of 2000. Dr. Kahlenborn is the author of the book entitled Breast Cancer: Its Link to Abortion and the Birth Control Pill.