March, I watched New York's newly anointed Cardinal
Edward Egan glide down the aisle of a packed press room
in Albany. It was his debut visit, as head of the New
York Catholic Conference, to lobby state legislators.
At the top of his list was defeating the Assembly version
of the Women's Health and Wellness bill, which would
require all insurers that offer drug benefits to cover
the costs of contraception. Egan supports the state
senate version, which includes a sweeping noncompliance
clause. (Neither had passed at press time.)
been documenting for years the Catholic Church's increasing
opposition, on so-called "conscience" grounds, to laws
that would expand women's access to reproductive health
care. But this was a first: one of the country's most
prestigious church leaders taking the assault out of
the backroom and into the spotlight.
adoring press politely queried His "Eminence" about
his opposition to the bill.
I wanted to know about a related agenda item: his battle
against legislation that would require all New York
hospitals to provide rape victims with emergency contraception
(EC). The Church maintains that such a mandate would
force Catholic hospitals to violate their beliefs by
having to dispense, or provide referrals for, what they
regard as a potential abortifacient.
pointed out, in what became a surreal exchange with
the cardinal, that the American Medical Association
requires that victims be told about pregnancy prevention
options, including EC; and that if a hospital does not
provide that information, and the rape victim becomes
pregnant, there is legal precedent for a malpractice
suit. "Given those realities," I asked Cardinal Egan,
"why should Catholic hospitals that deliver a secular
service to the general public with public money be allowed
to refuse to abide by recommended medical practice?"
cardinal obviously had no idea what I was talking about.
"That preamble would have to be looked at rather carefully,"
he said. "I don't know the ins and outs of all of that
. . . Your question would be one I'd like to see submitted
in a letter and then allow me to bring it forward to
people who can . . . see whether or not any of that
is so." Then, he added: "Let me put something before
us that is generic. You and I would agree, I believe,
that there is something within the woman, some kind
of being." Focused as I was on emergency room standards
of care, the question took me aback. "After a sexual
assault?" I asked.
I heard myself say. "Sperm might be in there."
the cardinal was taken aback. "Well, then," he finally
retorted, his face a holy crimson, "if there's only
sperm, the egg and the sperm didn't get together, is
that what you're saying?"
I said, and on he went: "At a certain point, rather
early in the development of that something, it gives
the indications that it might well be a human being-beating
hearts and fingers and toes and things like that certainly
suggest that there may be something there that is a
human being with an in-aaalien-able right to liiiive,"
said the cardinal, lapsing into an Irish brogue as he
gave a staggeringly inaccurate account of what happens
in the hours after intercourse.
he's not the only problem. Equally absurdist reasoning
can be found in Illinois. Last year, Cardinal Francis
George approved a protocol for the care of rape victims
in Catholic hospitals. It requires urine testing of
a rape victim to determine if she is ovulating. But
in a stultifying leap of logic, women who aren't ovulating
can have EC, while women who are, and therefore likely
to get pregnant, cannot.
Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice,
thinks we need to respond to the Church's machinations
more aggressively. "People are scared to death of criticizing
the Roman Catholic Church," she told a group of advocates
recently. "To defend reproductive health policy is pro-Catholic.
Catholic women support and use reproductive health care."
Angela Bonavoglia is a contributing editor of Ms.