Only conservative ob-gyns need apply

October 21, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - I confess to a certain grudging admiration for the spinmeisters of the right. In a fit of creativity, they're now accusing their opponents of "religious profiling."

Religious profiling? Blessed are the phrase-makers. The Family Research Council label conjures up the image of godly folk being pulled over to the side of the road for dangling their religious beliefs on the rear-view mirror.

In this case, their best offense is in defense of W. David Hager. This is the Kentucky ob-gyn who's being considered for membership and possibly chairmanship of the FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee.

Now, admit it, you didn't even know the FDA had such a committee. And for the last two years, while the agency was in something of a swoon, it virtually disappeared.

This month, Dr. Hager was speeding toward nomination on the resuscitated board when he got caught on the radar screen of the media. Time magazine described the ob-gyn from Kentucky as a "scantily credentialed" abortion opponent who treated PMS with prayer.

Soon he was found everywhere: As an opponent of RU-486 and emergency contraception. As a "refferal" (sic) on Virginityrules.com. As an advocate of abstinence-only programs. And as the object of dismay from women's health groups.

Did some of this go over the top? Absolutely. Nobody pored through the research that Dr. Hager has done on such reader-grabber subjects as Group B Strep Infections. But the excerpts of out-of-print books he co-authored with his wife - As Jesus Cared for Women and Stress and the Woman's Body - made Dr. Hager sound as if he used the Bible as his Physician's Desk Reference.

Yes, Dr. Hager and his wife advised Romans and Corinthians for PMS. But they also advised exercise and anti-depressants. Yes, they collected and offered their favorite scriptures for meditation against stress. But O, the Oprah Magazine has promoted candles, aroma therapy and rounds of "om." Different strokes for different spiritual folks?

Nevertheless, the question in the Hager flap is not whether religion is a disqualification for serving in society. It's whether belonging to the religious right is prerequisite for serving on anything to do with reproduction. Who's doing the religious profiling?

In theory, the FDA advisory committee is for research wonks, not ideologues. This is supposedly the place for facts. This is where the safety and effectiveness of drugs are debated, not the morals.

At one time, Dr. Hager said, "The fact that I'm a person of faith does not deter me from also being a person of science."

At another time, he said it was dangerous to compartmentalize life into "categories of Christian truth and secular truth." Can Dr. Hager's opponents separate his faith from his science? Can he?

Emergency contraception and RU-486 are both slated to be back before the committee. We already know that this would-be adviser opposes emergency contraception on moral grounds. Will that skew his judgment about whether it's safe to sell over the counter?

As for RU-486 or mifepristone, Dr. Hager's not just personally opposed to the "abortion pill." Last August he helped the Christian Medical Association produce a "citizens' petition" asking the FDA to take it off the market. They cited new "evidence" of its dangers to women that was neither new nor evidence. Today mifepristone is not only used for early abortions and other treatments but it's on the FDA's fast track for use as an anti-psychotic, especially for post-partum depression. Anyone wonder why Dr. Hager's, um, profile, is high?

This doctor would only be one of 11 members of an advisory board. We don't even know the others. But this is where government works, right below eye level. This is where "experts" rule and change lives.

There are 258 outside boards and panels in Health and Human Services. Tommy Thompson's office appoints about 450 people a year to these policy-making and advisory groups. And increasingly the folks who are picked to fill these jobs are true believers ... of industry or ideology.

Dr. Hager isn't a victim of religious profiling. He was picked because of his profile.

Never mind that he chaired a Kentucky revival for Billy Graham's son. Never mind what scriptures he provides and what prescriptions he denies in private practice.

If we don't pull this one to the side of the road, we'll all become his patients.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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