Personal Health

Bush's War on Women Is a War on Science

The veil over the Bush administration's war on women's reproductive health was pulled back recently by the president's own former surgeon general.
The veil over the Bush administration's war on women's reproductive health was pulled back recently by the president's own former surgeon general. When Richard H. Carmora told Congress he was muzzled by the administration when he wanted to speak out on issues of sex and science, he highlighted one of the news media's major failures over the past seven years.

The ideological matrix into which the administration has tried to cram science policy should have been one of the biggest stories in the nation. But the press failed its women readers in particular (and their children).

While one issue, stem cell research, did become a big story, the news media overall often failed to focus on a larger pattern, the almost unprecedented, across-the-board rejection of mainstream science by a U.S. president.

The issues over reproductive health, most of which were central mainly to women, flew well below the surface of the mainstream media. Checking through Lexis-Nexis, it is surprising to discover how big stories on the issue were more often featured in the British and Canadian media than in the United States.

One of the early salvos in this war was little noticed by the press. On Christmas Eve, 2002, in a stealth move, Bush named 11 members to a standing advisory committee of the FDA on reproductive health -- four were antiabortion advocates with a record of opposing reproductive drugs approved by the FDA. One appointee in particular worried mainstream scientists.

Dr. David Hager, a gynecologist, objected to oral contraceptives because he says that they provide a "convenient way for young people to be sexually active outside marriage" and wrote a book with his wife that recommends Bible readings and prayers for such ailments as premenstrual syndrome.

Not surprisingly, Hager was one of four FDA panel members who voted against making emergency contraceptive pills (known as plan B) available over the counter. In 2004, The Bush administration reversed a 23-4 vote in favor of the measure taken by its own FDA panel of scientists, who found the "morning-after" pill a safe and effective way to avoid unwanted pregnancies and to prevent hundreds of thousands of abortions.

One of the issues the former surgeon general told Congress he was instructed to avoid was plan B. Emergency contraception only became legal because of the muscle of two women senators, Hillary Clinton and Patty Murray. They held up Bush's nominee to be FDA commissioner until the administration caved and approved its own panel's recommendation.

Even information about birth control was targeted by the Bush administration. The National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control websites were told to remove information about the effectiveness of condoms from their websites, replacing it with pro-abstinence propaganda.

Not only that, reported the Council for Research on Women, the new CDC version inaccurately claimed that condoms could not protect against sexually transmitted diseases. The result of all this could be more unwanted pregnancies, more diseases -- and more abortions.

The abstinence-only juggernaut, fueled by the Bush administration, has been a virtual non-story for most of the American media. More than a billion federal dollars have been poured into state abstinence-only sex-education programs, despite the fact that research shows such programs don't work. The press has overall failed miserably to report critically on the failures of abstinence-only programs.

In a little-covered press conference in 2005, researchers at the Alan Guttmacher Institute reported that more than 88 percent of adolescents taking "virginity pledges" break them before marriage. The really bad news is that teens who take such pledges don't use contraceptives when they do have sex, making them vulnerable to unwanted pregnancies. Pledging teens have the same rate of sexually transmitted diseases as nonpledgers. In fact, Human Rights Watch claimed that abstinence-only programs "deny children basic information that could protect them from HIV/AIDS infection ... what they don't know may kill them."

Parents of children in such programs most likely assume that the information their children do get in such programs is accurate. Not so. A congressional staff analysis found in 2005 that abstinence-only programs gave out "false, misleading or distorted information."

Congressman Henry Waxman pointed out that 80 per cent of abstinence-only curricula studied contained false or misleading information. In particular, they blur religion and science; they treat gender stereotypes as scientific fact; and they contain serious scientific errors, such as the notions that abortion leads to sterility and suicide, that pregnancy can result from touching someone's genitals and that oral sex can give you cancer.

As Adrienne Verrilli of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (Siecus), notes: "To the Bush administration, science is just an opinion." Bush's surgeon general agreed but was muzzled. "There was already a policy in place that did not want to hear the science but wanted to preach abstinence only, but I felt that was scientifically incorrect," he told Congress.

When science becomes hostage to ideology, and when the lives of women and children are placed below pandering to a rabidly conservative Republican base, it's high time for outrage and an outcry. Maybe the press will finally wake up.
Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women (University Press of New England).