Health

New Federal Guidelines For Sexual Assault Cases Could Expand Rape Victims’ Access To Plan B

For the first time in the past seven years, the federal government has issued specific guidelines for the way that health professionals, law enforcement officers, and prosecutors should respond to sexual assault cases. And unlike the earlier guidelines issued in 2004, the new policy specifically recommends methods to prioritize victims’ “physical and emotional needs,” including ensuring that emergency contraception is available to them.

The new national protocol intends to standardize the practice of collecting evidence and treating victims who have been the subject of sexual violence — a method of bolstering the advances made by the Violence Against Women Act over the past 18 years. Except for the medical professionals working in federal prisons or in the military, who will be required to follow them, the guidelines are voluntary. Still, advocates working to assist victims of sexual assault are praising the new policy as an important update to the 2004 rules:

Unlike the 2004 protocol, the new guidelines also recommend that rape victims be offered emergency contraception or — in cases where health professionals have moral objections — information on how to immediately obtain the medication.

The earlier guidelines “were not nearly so direct,” said Barbara Sheaffer, medical advocacy coordinator for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, which receives some financing from the Justice Department. […]

Sgt. Jim Markey, a former sex crimes investigator for the Phoenix Police Department who now trains law enforcement officers in dealing with sexual assault, said the new guidelines were “long overdue.”

“What this does is this allows workers in the trenches, those victim advocates, those detectives and nurses, to go to the decision makers and leaders in their communities and say: ‘You know what? Here are the standards. We need the resources to provide the minimum standards that are in this protocol.’ ”

It’s important that the guidelines not only recommend making Plan B readily accessible, but also specify that the medical professionals who personally object to emergency contraception should still provide victims with information about where else to obtain it. Over the past year, there have been several incidences where rape victims have been denied the morning after pill at hospitals or jails after employees there cited their religious objections to the contraceptive.

However, there’s still more work to be done on the state level. Currently, just 16 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation that requires medical professionals to provide survivors of sexual assault with Plan B. In other states, Republican lawmakers have blocked similar proposals to help ensure rape victims’ access to emergency contraception.