by Gloria Feldt

My goodness, I go away for a week and miss all sorts of happenings in the world where sex and politics collide.

I returned from my high school reunion, then a week with family in Arizona without my computer or New York Times subscription, and found messages asking for comment on the Portland, Maine middle school that has added prescription contraceptives to its health clinic services.

You can imagine the twitter from the self-righteous right who believe no one would ever think about sex if we pro-sex education and pro-contraception people didn’t call it to their attention. They have apparently forgotten their own adolescence. (I suggest they attend their high school reunions to revive those repressed memories.)

Fortunately, many parents spoke up with exactly what needed to be said: While they rightly prefer that their kids abstain from sexual activity at such a tender age, they want even more for the school to help them keep their kids safe from disease and pregnancy if and when they do become sexually active. The school board voted to keep its policy of providing the full range of contraceptives in its health care formulary.

Meanwhile, there was related national news I was mercifully oblivious to last week as well. It seems that as surely as young people discover their sexuality no matter how ardently adults may wish to the contrary, George W. Bush just as surely and ardently continues his pattern of filling the position of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population Affairs (DASPA) — the person in charge of administering Title X, our nation’s major family planning program for low income uninsured individuals — with someone (Dr. Susan Orr) who fundamentally opposes birth control.

Read that last sentence again slowly to fully savor the irony.

With W of course, up is down and down is sideways. We’ve grown inured to the duplicity, the sleight of hand, the wink while Halliburton profits as our sons and daughters die in Iraq, the ruthlessness with which the 1 percent get richer while the rest of us get a burgeoning national debt and fewer of us get health insurance.

So it’s no surprise that the man talks piously about creating a culture of life while taking funding from lifesaving prevention programs like family planning and giving it to abstinence-only preachers. This makes the United States the laughingstock of the world’s public health organizations and in the end paradoxically increases disease, unintended pregnancies, abortions and deaths.

Usually, though, this administration and its right wing buddies at least try to obfuscate their Orwellian redefinitions. Not so, however when it comes to overseeing a program founded by his father that for decades enjoyed bipartisan support because it provides contraceptive services to more than 5 million American women each year through some 4,500 public health facilities, preventing 1.3 million unintended pregnancies and hundreds of thousands of abortions, and saving taxpayers $3 on Medicaid pregnancy and newborn-related care for every dollar spent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists family planning as one of "Ten Greatest Public Health Achievements of the 20th Century" for good reason.

Last year, Dr. Eric Keroack was appointed to the position of DASPA. Among other wacky ideas, Keroack alleged that pre-marital sex changes the brain chemistry so that bonding to another person becomes difficult. A non board-certified OB/GYN, Keroack not only opposed birth control, he was also medical director of A Woman’s Concern, one of many chains of so-called crisis pregnancy centers whose purpose is to dissuade women from choosing abortion under any circumstances.

But family planning prevents abortion, right? Yes, but these organizations support sexual abstinence until marriage, oppose contraception, and do not distribute information promoting birth control.

Fortunately for women who depend on Title-X for their most basic health care including annual gynecological exams, breast and cervical cancer screening, and birth control methods, Keroack soon fell like Humpty Dumpty from the weight of his own corruption. It turned out he was under investigation for Medicaid fraud in his private practice.

The appointment of Susan Orr — who is not a medical doctor — while also clearly in the down is up category, seems less like Humpty Dumpty and more like those Bozo Bop Bags that were popular with kids in the 1960s. You know, the clown punching bags with weights in the bottom so that you could punch and punch till you wore yourself out but never knock it down or out.

Orr, formerly senior director for marriage and families at the Family Research Council, supported Bush’s move to strip federal employees’ health insurance of contraceptive coverage, and in 2001 she told the Washington Post, "We’re quite pleased because fertility is not a disease. It’s not a medical necessity that you have [contraception]." Orr is on record as supporting the gag rule that denies funding to family planning programs that give women accurate information or counseling about abortion.

It’s no surprise that the ideological right, exemplified and led by groups such as the Family Research Council, opposes abortion, but now it should be abundantly clear they also oppose birth control. It’s not that they don’t understand birth control prevents abortion; it’s that they don’t want women to have birth control in the first place. Or the sexual and reproductive self-determination that goes with the ability to plan and space one’s own childbearing.

It also shouldn’t surprise anyone that a president who values blind fealty above all tows the line of the far right that he believes elected him, and sees that his administrative appointees do so as well. But he might have instructed secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Mike Leavitt, to be rather more careful this time in selecting a person who actually supports the program she or he is appointed to administer.

If you agree there is something wrong with this picture, then write and tell Secretary Leavitt. Rep. Louise Slaughter tells you how. While you’re at it, copy all your members of Congress and 10 friends, urging them to do the same. Orr can be Keroacked if the public outcry is loud enough.

Gloria Feldt
is the author of "The War on Choice: the Right-wing Attack on Women’s
Rights and How to Fight Back," and co-author with Kathleen Turner of
the forthcoming "Send Yourself Roses." She is the former president of
Planned Parenthood Federation of America and frequently lectures on the
history and future vision for women’s rights, health and justice.

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  • Cecilia Ford, Ph.D. October 24, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    The news that Portland, Me. Middle School health services will soon be offering contraceptives to children as young as 11 raises many complicated issues. The board adopted this policy because of the high pregnancy rate among its students in recent years, and they are clearly trying to protect their girls from this unwanted, life-altering event.
    Protection should not be confused with permission, however, and it cannot be stressed enough. Offering contraceptives must be accompanied by increased and up-to-date educational efforts that emphasize the need for safeguards against STDs. Recent studies have shown that neither condoms, nor the new HPV vaccine completely protects women from HPV, a virus linked to cervical cancer and now has been associated with cancer of the tongue. Oral contraceptives, of course, offer no protection whatsoever. The message, constantly repeated, must be delivered that pregnancy is not the only danger that sex presents, and that oral sex is far from being a “safe” alternate to intercourse.
    This leads to the third extremely important type of help that young girls need: emotional protection. This area, often neglected, is key. Unlike boys, young girls don’t have strong sexual urges. They usually engage in sexual behavior because of their wishes to be liked, popular, or “cool.” Often confused by conflicting social norms, many wind up turning to their peers for standards of how to act. Offering a strong alternative viewpoint, stressing the importance of resisting these pressures, may give insecure adolescents (are there any that aren’t insecure?) another path. Girls make themselves extremely vulnerable if they start having sex at an early age. They need to know that sex is not a substitute for love; that boys are seldom offering affection anyway when pressuring girls sexually; that they may wind up feeling hurt, empty, or angry; and that they may become the subject of gossip and exaggerations, especially in this age of instant communication. And they need to know that intercourse is unlikely to be fun or satisfying for them; that oral sex is indeed “the real thing” and can be dangerous; and, finally, that there is no such thing as “casual sex.”
    Even if they appear not to understand, if young people consistently hear a clear, non-judgmental message, eventually it can sink in. Many kids turn to their religious leaders for guidance. Kids without these figures still have parents and teachers. When confused, a young girl can to turn to a strong idea delivered by a caring adult. You will get hurt, so Mom says “no.”

    Reply
  • Elizabeth Hemmerdinger October 24, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    The importance of this issue and it’s impact on families cannot be underestimated. I’m going to forward this blog to politicans, local and national and to my whole list.
    Elizabeth

    Reply
  • Dr. Pat Allen October 24, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    Many issues affect American women who need access to contraception. It must be a priority of the next administration to find funding for low-cost centers across the country, like Planned Parenthood, so that cost is not the limiting factor.
    There are many other restrictions to access to contraception. It is unconscionable that pharmacists can refuse to carry or sell Plan B, the emergency contraception also known as the morning after pill. We need legislation that prevents this egregious extension of personal morality from interfering with a woman’s decision to prevent a pregnancy after unprotected intercourse or barrier contraceptive failure.
    Rural areas throughout this country have limited medical services. It is often in these outlying areas that women who are victimized by unwanted sexual events have no method to prevent the pregnancies that so often occur. There is no safe place for these women to get basic information or support.
    It is time that we elect a President and members of the House who understand clearly that women of all walks of life want the freedom to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Political action first, then absolute accountability next.

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