HARTFORD, Conn. - The state House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill to require all hospitals to offer rape victims emergency contraception, over objections from Catholic leaders who say it infringes on their religious rights.
The legislation, which passed the Democratic-controlled Senate last week, now moves to Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell. The governor said she was inclined to support it but would not decide until she saw the bill.
The 113-36 vote in the Democratic-controlled House came after a three-hour debate and over protests from Catholic hospitals and church leaders in the state who say the measure forces them to violate their beliefs. The Catholic Church teaches that life begins at conception.
The emergency contraception, known as Plan B, is a concentrated dose of the same drug found in many regular birth-control pills. Taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, a woman can lower the risk of pregnancy by up to 89 percent. If she is already pregnant, the pills have no effect.
Church leaders say the pills could cause an abortion. Last year, Hartford Archbishop Henry J. Mansell directed the four Catholic hospitals in the state not to prescribe the drug if a rape victim is ovulating or an egg has been fertilized.
Proponents said health care for rape victims should be consistent for all 30 Connecticut hospitals. Rape crisis counselors say there are unclear and inconsistent policies for supplying Plan B to victims who seek treatment in emergency rooms across the state, including some of the nonreligious hospitals.
In an effort to appease the Catholic Church, Wednesday's bill allows an independent, third-party health care provider, such as a rape crisis nurse, to distribute the drug.
Church officials objected to the provision. They say the requirements to hire an outside health care provider and have the drug distributed on hospital grounds create a false impression that the church is complicit in an abortion.
The compromise measure also requires a pregnancy test before the drug is administered.
Barry Feldman, a lawyer for the Connecticut Catholic Hospitals Council, said Mansell is very disappointed. The state's bishops must now consider their options, including possible legal action, he said.
"I know that he regards this as a blow to religious freedom in Connecticut, religious freedom not just of the Catholic Church and Catholic organizations, but every individual and every religious organization in the state," Feldman said.
Republican Rep. Lile Gibbons said, however, that the bill ensures that the highest and most current medical care will be given to rape victims.
The legislation is similar to laws passed in New York, New Jersey and Minnesota with the support of the Catholic Church in those states.