Daughter Knows Best

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Last week President Bush named yet another person to oversee the federally funded family planning program who doesn't seem especially keen on federally funded family planning. He might have done better to pick his daughter Jenna.

Her book, "Ana's Story," about a Central American teenage mother who is HIV-positive, is refreshingly reality-based about sexual behavior -- in a way that her father's administration resists.

President Bush pushes funding for abstinence-only sex education, with students given no information about birth control or safe sex. Jenna Bush, who met Ana while working as a UNICEF intern in Latin America, understands that abstinence isn't always the chosen path.

"If you decide abstinence is right for you, don't let anyone tell you otherwise," she writes. "But if you decide that you're ready for a sexual relationship, the best way to protect yourself from HIV and other [sexually transmitted infections] is to be faithful to your partner and use a condom every time."

Good advice -- if only the federal government wanted American children of Ana's age to hear it. Instead, abstinence-only programs are riddled with misstatements that exaggerate the failure rate of condoms and minimize their ability to protect against disease.

President Bush requires abstinence-only programs to teach that "sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects." Jenna Bush describes how Ana, then 16, has sex for the first time with HIV-positive Berto: "She felt no fear, only love." She relates approvingly how a nurse told Ana at age 10 that "when she was older and ready to have sex that it was very important to always use condoms."

As Jenna Bush told Newsweek, "In Africa my dad's policies are pretty much in line with mine, but not domestically." ABC -- abstain, be faithful, use condoms -- is the message abroad, not at home.

Contrast Jenna Bush with the president's latest flawed choice for the post of acting deputy secretary for population affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services -- in other words, the official who oversees federal family planning programs and advises on reproductive health and adolescent pregnancy, including abstinence-only programs.

You may remember Bush's previous pick: Eric Keroack, who was medical director of a pregnancy-counseling (read: antiabortion) clinic that considered birth control "demeaning to women" and believed that making contraception available, "especially among adolescents, actually increases . . . out-of-wedlock pregnancy and abortion."

Keroack resigned after it was revealed that state Medicaid officials had taken action against his private medical practice in Massachusetts. Bush replaced him with Susan Orr, former senior director for marriage and family care at the conservative Family Research Council and an adjunct professor at Pat Robertson's Regent University. Orr seems to be Keroack Lite.

In 2001, when the Bush administration proposed lifting the requirement that health insurers of federal employees provide coverage for contraceptives, Orr cheered. "We're quite pleased, because fertility is not a disease," she said. "It's not a medical necessity that you have it." Tell that to girls like Ana.

The year before, Orr fought a D.C. Council bill requiring all employers to cover contraception -- with no exception for those, such as the Catholic Church, that have religious objections. I agree that a "conscience clause" should have been included, but Orr's opposition was disturbingly vitriolic. "The mask of choice is falling off," she said. "It's not about choice. It's not about health care. It's about making everyone collaborators with the culture of death."

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