Eric Keroack: The new Bush HHS appointee.

Health and medicine explained.
Nov. 21 2006 4:50 PM

The Family Un-Planner

The Bush administration's crazy new HHS appointment.

(Continued from Page 1)

Keroack's cites research on oxytocin levels in animals like prairie voles. There are obvious problems in extrapolating from voles to humans, whose brains are much more complex. A handful of human studies show a role for oxytocin in promoting sociability. But there are inconsistencies. One study found that lactating women who had higher plasma levels of oxytocin reported being more sociable. But two others found that women with higher oxytocin levels reported higher relationship distress—precisely the opposite of Keroack's claim. More crucially, there are no data to suggest a causal link between oxytocin levels and marital happiness—or between any of this and premarital sex. Keroack's claim is simply "not borne out by the current evidence," says Jennifer Bartz of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, author of an excellent review article. To be less polite, this is a guy who takes a neuropeptide and a prairie vole and spins from them science fiction.

In his new role, Keroack will have extensive power to shape the kinds of information disseminated to millions of women. He will be able to develop new guidelines for clinics, set priorities, and determine how scarce dollars get spent, says Marilyn Keefe of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. "We've seen that people in these political slots have a tremendous influence over how programs get implemented," she said. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services defended the appointment in an e-mail, stating that "Dr. Keroack is highly qualified and a well-respected physician."

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But at a moment when the need for subsidized birth control is rising, and clinics are struggling to pay for basic services—not to mention advances in screening and prevention like the HPV vaccine—a new hire hostile to family planning and accurate medical information is the last thing women need. Keroack has also won props from the Christian right for using ultrasounds in pregnancy counseling. He argues that the images dissuade women from having abortions and that at A Woman's Concern, the number of patients choosing abortions dropped dramatically when the ultrasounds were introduced. So, stay tuned. This innovation, too, may be coming to a publicly funded clinic near you.

Amanda Schaffer is a science and medical columnist for Slate.

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