Closeup of pharmacist's hands taking medicines from shelf at the pharmacy

Why sexual violence needs to be classed as a medical emergency

ALRANZ president Terry Bellamak and HELP Chief Executive Conor Twyford respond to the news that medical practitioners may keep the right to refuse to provide contraception to sexual assault survivors. 

Approximately 1 in 4 New Zealand women experience a serious sexual assault. That’s a lot of suffering. 

How do we care for people who have survived sexual assault? Organisations like HELP and Rape Crisis do important work supporting survivors to recover from the trauma of sexual violence.

But when it comes to providing survivors with emergency contraception to prevent conceiving from sexual assault, survivors may find their health and wellbeing runs a distant second to the ‘right’ of health practitioners to deny them emergency contraception on grounds of ‘conscience.’

What is ‘conscientious objection’? Hint: it has nothing to do with the brave men who were persecuted during WW1. They were struggling against the authorities, and paid a high price for their conscience.

Conscientious objection in the medical context is practically the opposite. Health practitioners, who are the authorities since only they are permitted to provide health care, have demanded and received the right not to provide health care of which they disapprove, without suffering any consequences, while obstructing their patient’s right to access health care.

Conor Twyford and Terry Bellamak

Emergency contraception is a pill you can take up to 72 hours after unprotected sex. It works in one of three ways: it prevents ovulation; it prevents fertilisation; or, it prevents implantation. If a pregnancy has begun, it does not work at all. It is most effective if taken within 12 hours of unprotected sex. 

And like all forms of contraception, it prevents unwanted pregnancy and the need for abortion. 

The Abortion Legislation Bill specifically allows ‘conscientious objection’ in cases of sexual violence. This means that, instead of getting emergency contraception in that highly effective 12 hour window, sexual assault survivors who are unlucky enough to consult a health practitioner who obstructs access to reproductive health care, must run around trying to find someone else who will help them get the medicine they need.

That is the very last thing someone who has already experienced trauma should have to face. 

Emergency contraception is time-sensitive. In that very real sense, it is a medical emergency. The Abortion Legislation Bill requires health practitioners to help people in a medical emergency, conscientious objection or not. That is fair.

The bill should be amended to classify sexual violence as a medical emergency and require health practitioners to supply emergency contraception on request.

To be clear, we are not talking about forcing health practitioners to perform abortions or prescribe contraception in general. We are talking about a narrow, specific circumstance where anyone with an ounce of compassion would agree denying people the care they need is just cruel. It is also counterproductive if society wants to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. 

How does it feel for a survivor to realise their government considers their health and wellbeing less important than health practitioners’ illusion of moral certitude? Probably pretty crappy – just another way our society stigmatises survivors of sexual violence and puts their interests last. 

It is time for Parliament to stand up for survivors and place their interests first, for once.

If you are affected by sexual violence in any way, please consider contacting any of the following organisations:

Help: Support for sexual abuse survivors

NZPC

Women’s Refuge

Rape Crisis

Lifeline


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