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Justice Department unveils new guidelines for medical exams on victims of sexual assault

Published: Saturday, April 27 2013 3:15 p.m. MDT

"Techniques for collecting and analyzing evidence in rape cases have evolved over the last decade, as has the understanding of the psychological effects of sexual assault. But how health practitioners, law enforcement officers, prosecutors and others respond after a rape still varies widely across the country," wrote Erica Goode in a recent New York Times article.

To ensure a more sensitive approach to victims of sexual assault, the Department of Justice announced this week a new protocol for forensic medical examinations in these cases. "The guidelines emphasize that the rape victim’s physical and emotional needs should take precedence over criminal justice considerations," wrote Goode. While the recommendations are voluntary for hospitals and other medical facilities, they will be mandatory in federal prisons and military settings.

The new standards update a 2004 protocol for forensic medical examinations of victims of sexual assault. The 2004 guidelines “took a more prosecutorial tone,” said Bea Hanson, acting director of the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, in an interview with Goode.

The 2004 protocol emphasized the need for victims to collaborate with criminal justice authorities. “Research shows that once victims get support, they’re more likely to cooperate with the criminal justice system,” Hanson told Goode.

The new protocol, unlike the 2004 standards, also recommends that "rape victims be offered emergency contraception or — in cases where health professionals have moral objections — information on how to immediately obtain the medication," Goode wrote.

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