Seeking Justice: Jailed Rape Victim Who Was Denied Contraception Can Sue Florida Sheriff

No one should be denied access to health care just because it violates someone else’s religious belief, especially when it’s a government official who is doing the denying.

In January 2007, a Tampa, Fla., woman identified in court records as “R.W.” was raped.

After visiting a rape crisis center in Tampa, she was prescribed emergency contraception as a precaution. She took one contraceptive pill immediately and intended to take a second pill 12 hours later as a doctor had instructed, court records said. 

But R.W. almost didn’t get to take that second pill. In the process of filing a report on the rape, a Tampa police officer discovered that there was an arrest warrant for R.W. She was taken to jail, and everything she had with her was confiscated – including her pill.

The next morning, R.W. asked permission to take the second pill but was denied by jail employee Michele Spinelli because it conflicted with Spinelli’s religious beliefs. It was only when R.W. was about to be released that she was able to take the contraception, the court said.

Luckily R.W. didn’t get pregnant, but she sued both Spinelli and Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee for gender discrimination, violation of privacy and denial of equal protection.

Initially, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich said that R.W. could sue Spinelli only, dismissing claims against Gee in his official capacity. But R.W. amended her complaint against the sheriff, and earlier this month Kovachevich sided with the plaintiff.

Gee claimed that R.W. didn’t allege any sort of unconstitutional official policy or practice of the county that led to her being denied contraception. Kovachevich disagreed, saying that even though Gee didn’t instruct Spinelli to deny contraception, Spinelli became the official policy maker because Gee wasn’t on duty at the time and he had never taken a stand on access to contraception.

“The single action of a final policy-maker can represent official government policy, even when the action is not meant to control later decisions....,”  Kovachevich said in her decision.  

While it is indeed fortunate that R.W. is allowed to move forward with her lawsuit, her ordeal is a glimpse into the future that all Americans may face if the Catholic hierarchy and its Religious Right allies get their way.

The bishops and their fundamentalist cronies argue that their “conscience” should never be violated, and no one who objects to birth control should ever have to provide it (or allow it to be taken). They don’t care where you work, whether it’s a church, a government agency or a Taco Bell. Your personal religious beliefs trump what anyone else needs or wants – or what the law says.

They’re wrong. No one should be denied access to health care just because it violates someone else’s religious belief, especially when it’s a government official who is doing the denying.

If ultra-conservative religious lobbies get their way, however, stories like R.W.’s will become all-too-common. This must not happen, and the Obama administration and other elected officials need to stand up to Religious Right bullying.