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Last March, I watched New York's newly anointed Cardinal Edward Egan glide down the aisle of a packed press room in Albany. It was his debut visit, as head of the New York Catholic Conference, to lobby state legislators. At the top of his list was defeating the Assembly version of the Women's Health and Wellness bill, which would require all insurers that offer drug benefits to cover the costs of contraception. Egan supports the state senate version, which includes a sweeping noncompliance clause. (Neither had passed at press time.)

I'd been documenting for years the Catholic Church's increasing opposition, on so-called "conscience" grounds, to laws that would expand women's access to reproductive health care. But this was a first: one of the country's most prestigious church leaders taking the assault out of the backroom and into the spotlight.

An adoring press politely queried His "Eminence" about his opposition to the bill.

But I wanted to know about a related agenda item: his battle against legislation that would require all New York hospitals to provide rape victims with emergency contraception (EC). The Church maintains that such a mandate would force Catholic hospitals to violate their beliefs by having to dispense, or provide referrals for, what they regard as a potential abortifacient.

I pointed out, in what became a surreal exchange with the cardinal, that the American Medical Association requires that victims be told about pregnancy prevention options, including EC; and that if a hospital does not provide that information, and the rape victim becomes pregnant, there is legal precedent for a malpractice suit. "Given those realities," I asked Cardinal Egan, "why should Catholic hospitals that deliver a secular service to the general public with public money be allowed to refuse to abide by recommended medical practice?"

The cardinal obviously had no idea what I was talking about. "That preamble would have to be looked at rather carefully," he said. "I don't know the ins and outs of all of that . . . Your question would be one I'd like to see submitted in a letter and then allow me to bring it forward to people who can . . . see whether or not any of that is so." Then, he added: "Let me put something before us that is generic. You and I would agree, I believe, that there is something within the woman, some kind of being." Focused as I was on emergency room standards of care, the question took me aback. "After a sexual assault?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

"Sperm," I heard myself say. "Sperm might be in there."

Now, the cardinal was taken aback. "Well, then," he finally retorted, his face a holy crimson, "if there's only sperm, the egg and the sperm didn't get together, is that what you're saying?"

"Yes," I said, and on he went: "At a certain point, rather early in the development of that something, it gives the indications that it might well be a human being-beating hearts and fingers and toes and things like that certainly suggest that there may be something there that is a human being with an in-aaalien-able right to liiiive," said the cardinal, lapsing into an Irish brogue as he gave a staggeringly inaccurate account of what happens in the hours after intercourse.

But he's not the only problem. Equally absurdist reasoning can be found in Illinois. Last year, Cardinal Francis George approved a protocol for the care of rape victims in Catholic hospitals. It requires urine testing of a rape victim to determine if she is ovulating. But in a stultifying leap of logic, women who aren't ovulating can have EC, while women who are, and therefore likely to get pregnant, cannot.

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, thinks we need to respond to the Church's machinations more aggressively. "People are scared to death of criticizing the Roman Catholic Church," she told a group of advocates recently. "To defend reproductive health policy is pro-Catholic. Catholic women support and use reproductive health care."

Angela Bonavoglia is a contributing editor of Ms.