Roman Catholic-run hospitals can prescribe limited emergency contraception to rape victims, German bishops said Thursday as they sought to contain fallout from an embarrassing recent case in which two hospitals refused to treat a woman.
In a statement issued at the end of a regular meeting in the western city of Trier, the German Bishops Conference said Catholic hospitals still can't provide drugs that would lead to the death of an embryo.
The German church was under pressure to clarify its stance after two Catholic hospitals in Cologne turned away a rape victim because of concerns over the pill. Cologne's archbishop, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, said last month that the church was "deeply ashamed by this incident because it goes against our Christian mission."
At the end of January, Meisner said it was "justifiable" in such cases to provide drugs that prevent conception. He later said he had consulted with Pope Benedict XVI's secretary, Georg Gaenswein, and was told that "everything is alright."
For decades, Catholic hospitals have in cases of rape allowed the use of spermicidal wash to impede sperm from reaching an egg and drugs to prevent the victim from ovulating. The rationale is that rape is an act of violence against a woman; to prevent the attack from continuing, a hospital can use drugs to impede conception.
Church teaching, however, holds that life begins at conception, and thus forbids the use of drugs that would intercept, dislodge or abort a fertilized egg, according to the Rev. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at Rome's Pontifical Holy Cross University.
"This new determination by the German bishops is in full continuity with church teaching, and specifies how best to implement new pharmaceutical technology," Gahl said.
Thursday's statement by the bishops stressed that rape victims "can of course receive human, medical, psychological and pastoral help in Catholic hospitals.
"That can include prescription of the 'morning-after pill,' insofar as it has a preventive and not an abortive effect. Medical and pharmaceutical methods which result in the death of an embryo still may not be used."
It said the bishops "trust that practical treatment in Catholic-run facilities will take place on the basis of these moral and theological guidelines."
The statement did not specify any timeframe within which the morning-after pill can be prescribed. That pill contains a higher dose of the female progestin hormone than is in regular birth control pills. Taking it within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse can cut the chances of pregnancy by up to 89 percent. But it works best within the first 24 hours.
If a woman already is pregnant, the pill has no effect. It prevents ovulation or fertilization of an egg.
Meisner's diocese has said that approval for emergency contraception does not extend to RU-486, which terminates pregnancy by causing the embryo to detach from the uterine wall.