Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK, Nov 30 2006 (IPS) — Women’s groups, health advocacy organisations and 21 members of the U.S. Congress are strongly lobbying against the recent appointment of an anti-birth control activist as head of the nation’s family planning programme.

Last week, the George W. Bush administration named Dr. Eric Keroack to oversee the country’s family planning programmes at the Department of Health and Human Services, despite the fact that he was well known for his extremist views on abortion and birth control, including for married women.

The fact that Keroack was appointed soon after the Bush administration lost control of both houses of Congress to the opposition Democratic Party early this month has raised further suspicions that Bush wants to use his office to advance a far-right agenda.

“His appointment is an insult to American women. It’s outrageous,” June Zeitlin, executive director of the New York-based Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO), told IPS.

“Once again we see what lengths this president will go to in order to pacify his anti-birth control right-wing base,” added Nancy Keenan, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, an advocacy group.

Last week, Naral, which has more than one million members, and 24 other leading providers and advocates of reproductive health care, including the Planned Parenthood Federation, sent a letter to Michael O’ Leavitt, the secretary of health, urging him to reconsider Keroack’s appointment as deputy assistant secretary for population affairs (DASPA).

The DASPA is responsible for providing family planning and preventive health care services to more than five million poor women. Since its creation some 35 years ago, the federal family planning programme has helped women avoid an estimated 20 million pregnancies.

Keroack is a Massachusetts obstetrician and gynecologist who has repeatedly argued that abstinence until marriage is the only healthy choice for women. Until recently, he served as medical director of a pregnancy counseling organisation, known as “A Women’s Concern” in Boston.

The group takes pride in stating that it does not “distribute, or encourage the use of contraceptive drugs and devices”. It also believes that “commercialisation and distribution is demeaning to women” and teaches that condoms “only protect against HIV/AIDS 85 percent of the time, which means you have 15 percent chance of contracting it while using a condom.”

In their letter to Leavitt, the women’s groups described Keroack’s positions as “antithetical” to the goals of the federal family planning programme and “out of step with scientific evidence”.

“We believe he should neither be inclined nor should he be trusted to carry out and enforce the goals” of the programme, the letter said, expressing the fear that Keroack “could jeopardise the health of millions of women.”

In a bid to put further pressure on the administration, Planned Parenthood has advised all its members, estimated at around three million, to write individual letters to Leavitt against Keroack’s appointment.

“His professional history makes clear he should be stamped with a warning label against women’s health and safety,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.

“Appointing an individual who has crusaded against birth control to head the nation’s family programme makes a mockery of women’s health,” she added.

Richards and other health activists fear that Keroack would try to develop new guidelines for clinics, set priorities and determine how federal money gets spent.

“We have seen that people in these political slots have tremendous influence over how programmes get implemented,” said Marilyn Keefe of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, one of the groups that signed the letter.

In addition to facing strong criticism and protests from women’s groups, the administration has also drawn heavy fire from some in the print media over the controversial appointment.

The Los Angles Times lambasted the administration in an editorial titled “Bush’s bizarre appointment.”

Describing him as “an extremist so out of line with scientific thought that it is difficult to describe his views without laughing”, the paper noted that Keroack has argued that “women who have sex with multiple partners alter their brain chemistry in the process, making it harder for them to form close relationships.”

The administration is already spending 158 million dollars a year on “abstinence-only education” programmes. Critics say it has failed to work and is partly based on misleading information about condoms and AIDS.

Still, the administration continues to justify its decision, and a spokesperson for the Department of Health has repeatedly stated that Keroack “is highly qualified and well-respected physician.”

Bush does not need Senate confirmation in Keroack’s case, so there is little Congress can do. However, activists said they would like their elected representatives to perform their due role.

“We are hoping the Congress will find the way to reverse this decision,” said Zietlin. “The women of America deserve better.”

In their letter, the 21 legislators noted that a pamphlet on abortion distributed by Keroack’s group erroneously claimed that an abortion increases the risk of breast cancer by 50 percent, and can multiply the risk of breast cancer for teens by a factor of eight.

“Someone who oversees the provision of inaccurate medical information about an issue as crucial to women’s health as breast cancer should not be responsible for overseeing the federal programme that provides health services, including cancer detection services, for five million women a year,” the letter said.


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