Extremists block the path to common ground on family planning

January 19, 2007|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Do you worry that things are getting too touchy-feely on the home front? Are you afraid that the plea for common ground is becoming the all-too-common wisdom? Do you wonder if the culture warriors are becoming pacifists?

Cynics, take heart. We offer you advance word from the troops preparing for the annual March for Life marking the 34th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade on Monday. The parade's theme this year is: "Thou Shalt Protect the Equal Right to Life of Each Innocent Human in Existence at Fertilization. No Exception! No Compromise!"

For at least a dozen years, anti-abortion activists tried to portray their pro-choice opponents as the extremists. In one Republican Congress after another, bills such as those banning so-called partial-birth abortion were aimed more at moving public opinion than reducing the need for abortion. Pro-lifers had their eyes on the single prize of finding Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe.

But gradually, from Terri Schiavo to Plan B to stem cell opposition, the right wing overreached. In that reddest of states, South Dakota, voters in November repealed an abortion ban that echoed the theme: No exception! No compromise!

Meanwhile, pro-choice groups spent those same years with their ear to the middle ground, listening to the people who want to keep abortion legal but less frequent. If there are 3 million unplanned pregnancies and half of them end up in abortion, you do the math. The point on which most Americans agree is reducing unplanned pregnancies.

It's not an accident that one of the first bills in the Senate with a new Democratic majority was the Prevention First Act, a wide-ranging family planning initiative. Democratic Rep. Louise M. Slaughter of New York will follow next week with a similar bill described in one mouthful as a "bipartisan, bicameral, pro-choice, pro-life innovative approach to reducing unintended pregnancies." Then, Democratic Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Tim Ryan of Ohio - a pro-choice/pro-life duo - will reintroduce an omnibus family planning and family support bill with the lumbering title, "The Reducing the Need for Abortions and Supporting Parents Act."

All these bills would, as Ms. DeLauro says, "lead us forward instead of always being defensive." All of them would at the very least expand family planning programs to more women, especially poor women.

But there is a roadblock to this common ground. The man overseeing it is Dr. Eric Keroack, the new head of the Office of Population Affairs.

As Cecile Richards, head of Planned Parenthood, says, "You have to search far and wide to find a doctor who opposes family planning to run the nation's family planning program." This White House found one.

If you missed the first gasp at this appointment, Dr. Keroack is an OB-GYN who was the medical director for A Woman's Concern, a network of faith-based "crisis pregnancy centers" in Massachusetts. This group not only promotes abstinence until marriage, it also regards birth control as "demeaning to women, degrading of human sexuality and adverse to human health and happiness."

Dr. Keroack's PowerPoint lectures should be regulars on The Colbert Report. In the most infamous, titled, appropriately, "If I Only Had a Brain," he teaches that "premarital sex is really modern germ warfare."

His unique "scientific explanation" of why multiple sex partners are bad has to do with, uh, oxytocin. "People who have misused their sexual faculty and become bonded to multiple persons will diminish the power of oxytocin to maintain a permanent bond with an individual." This ranks with old-time warnings that you-know-what leads to warts. Yet Dr. Keroack is supposed to be the nation's chief advocate for family planning.

His appointment has produced a furor that has yet to diminish. Or to succeed. The Department of Health and Human Services has wanly defended Dr. Keroack, saying he had prescribed birth control in his private practice.

By now we've gotten used to ideologues imitating scientists, whether the subject is global warming or evolution.

But as we near the 34th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, most Americans have wearily come to agree on the best way to reduce abortions. Prevention first? Not when the president has handed the deed for common ground to the Count of Oxytocin.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column usually appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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