The Swiss Catholic Bishops Conference is discussing whether women who have been raped may use emergency contraception under certain conditions. The talks echo recent changes in the positions of their German and Spanish counterparts.
Earlier reports had said that the bishops had already decided in favour of the contraceptive, but on Thursday the conference claimed that it was still discussing the issue.
The use of the morning-after pill is in any way only considered when there is a contraceptive effect, restated the bishops’ spokesman Walter Müller, and not when it "induces an abortion".
In practice this distinction is not easy to prove and the exact effect of the hormonal pills from case to case is not known, Karl Küenzi of Pharmasuisse told Zurich’s Tages Anzeiger newspaper on Wednesday.
“The bishops [...] give the impression that there are different types of morning-after pill on the market, which is not the case,” Küenzi said.
Müller acknowledged that the distinction between contraception (suppressing ovulation) and abortion (preventing implantation of a fertilised ovum) is not always clear. The bishops therefore consider it imperative that women seek advice from pharmacists and physicians.
The Catholic Church upholds that human life begins at conception and no intervention should cause “the death of a human life”.
The bishops’ discussions began after a recommendation from their bioethics committee. Rape is an act of violence which transgresses the fundamental rights of women and cannot be accepted, Müller pointed out.
More than 100,000 packs of the morning-after pill are sold in Switzerland per year, according to industry estimates, although Sandoz, the manufacturer of the only brand available to date, does not give out sales figures. It was released for sale in Switzerland without prescription in 2002.
In comparison, almost two-thirds of the 11,079 women who had abortions in 2011 used the medication method (abortion pill), up from half in 2004.
After a decade of largely unrestricted access to abortion, the rate in Switzerland remains stable and is among the lowest in the world. Three-quarters of abortions in Switzerland take place in the first eight weeks of pregnancy.
The Swiss decision mirrors recent changes in doctrine approved by the Catholic bishops of Germany and Spain. In Germany, the refusal of a Catholic hospital in Cologne to provide the morning-after-pill to a suspected rape victim sparked a scandal that forced the Church to react.
The move was backed by the Vatican in the person of Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
“What [Catholic] Church teaching says in this case is: in cases of rape all possible action must be taken to prevent a pregnancy but not to interrupt it. Whether a given medicine is classed as a contraceptive or abortion-inducing medication, is up to doctors and scientists, not the Church,” Carrasco de Paula said in a recent interview with the Vatican Insider information service.