Legislators and activists were all smiles Monday as they packed into Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s ceremony room at the state Capitol to watch him sign into law a bill that ensures sexually assaulted women will have access to emergency contraception anywhere they seek emergency care.
"I can’t think of anything that I’ve had the opportunity to participate in now, with regard to signing of a bill, that means more to me than this does," Abercrombie told the audience.
House Bill 411 aims to prevent pregnancies as a result of rape by requiring Hawaii hospitals to provide female sexual assault victims with medically and factually accurate information regarding emergency contraception as well as provide emergency contraception to all women who accept or request it.
It has been a point of contention among lawmakers and concerned community members for nearly two decades.
"It’s about violence towards women; it’s about maintaining the standard of care for trauma victims; it’s about the rights of victims; it’s about women’s reproductive rights; it’s about kindness to people," former state Rep. Marilyn Lee said after the governor signed the bill. "And the fact that it took us so long, I guess, makes today even more important."
Lee, a one-time champion of the bill, also thanked colleagues who, through the years, "gave the hard speeches that sometimes brought us to tears, because it was really hard to talk about rape on the floor of the House."
Members of religious communities, including the St. Francis Healthcare System of Hawaii, which ran the former Hawaii Medical Center-West campus, and others morally opposed to emergency contraception have consistently opposed mandating hospitals to carry and dispense the drug because they believe it can cause an abortion based on their definition that conception begins when an egg is first fertilized.
Emergency contraception is a high dose of hormones that works best when taken within five days of unprotected sex, primarily by stopping the release of an egg or not allowing sperm to reach the egg. It also "may prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb," according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"I tend to be a person of science," Sen. Roz Baker, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection and vice chairwoman of the Senate Health Committee, said earlier this session. "And I believe the law ought to be neutral in that regard. This is not forcing anybody to do anything in terms of taking something; it’s about making information and standard of care available."
A 2010 survey by the Coalition for Compassionate Care for Sexual Assault Victims found that emergency contraception is not offered in all Hawaii hospitals, despite the position of the American Medical Association and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that it should be.
In light of a shakeup in House leadership this session, lawmakers who fought for years for what they dubbed the "Compassionate Care Act" found themselves hopeful this would be the year it passed.
Legislators in both the House and Senate proposed amendments to the bill that would have inserted various exemptions based on religious tenets, but those amendments were all shot down.
The bill was amended slightly in the House Health and Judiciary committees before being sent over to the Senate, where it was passed unamended. It was sent to the governor for signing on April 11.
Baker cited administrative support as another reason the bill finally passed muster.
"Support at the very top levels of our government really made a difference," Baker said, specifically thanking state Director of Human Services Patricia McManaman for her effort to make the emergency contraceptive bill an administrative priority and her personal testimony regarding her own experience with sexual assault.
"When you came and testified before the Senate committee, it was with great passion and with great understanding and with great appreciation for what needed to be done," Baker told McManaman.
Abercrombie concluded the news conference by noting he wasn’t entirely comfortable with getting credit for "doing something that you should do."
"My mother used to say to me, ‘little triumphs and little joys,’" he said. "This is a big triumph and it’s a big joy."