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Bush appointee angers women's health advocates

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Washington --- International women's health experts gathering here last week reacted with concern to the Bush administration's appointment of a conservative family-planning chief at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Some experts said that women's reproductive health problems are exacerbated by opposition from conservative groups to health agencies' efforts to promote access to contraceptives or abortion services.

"This needs to be seen as a human rights issue and not just as a women's issue," said Maurice Middleberg, vice president for public policy at the Global Health Council and a former public health professor at Emory University.

Disability and premature deaths among women due to inadequate sexual and reproductive health services are increasing worldwide, a World Health Organization study published in October concluded.

The study, a series of research papers and related commentary, identified unsafe sexual practices as the second-leading cause of disease, disability or death in poor countries and the ninth-leading cause of those factors in developed countries.

Panelists said Bush's family-planning appointee, Dr. Eric Keroack, raises questions about implications for public funding of programs other than those urging abstinence.

Keroack served as medical director of A Women's Concern, a Christian pregnancy counseling organization that regards the widespread distribution of contraceptives as "demeaning to women."

As deputy assistant secretary for population affairs, he will advise Secretary Mike Leavitt on issues like teen pregnancy and other reproductive health issues.

"Abstinence is not the answer," said David Grimes, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "Policies should be based on sound science."

Grimes said about 20 million abortions are performed each year by people without proper medical credentials or in environments that don't meet minimum medical standards, or both. Grimes said about 68,000 women die of these procedures.

Some panelists, however, warned against the demonization of conservative health organizations and called for effective alliances among organizations to promote safer sexual health practices worldwide.

"The pendulum always swings between liberalism and conservatism," said Arletty Pinel, chief of the reproductive health branch of the United Nations Population Fund. "The key element is that when you look at issues of sexual and reproductive health, the people who get the brunt of our inaction are the poor."

Another point of controversy surrounding the WHO study's release is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's decision to back out of supporting it and the fact that a CDC scientist was forced to step down as an author of a paper on global control of sexually transmitted infections.

A. Metin Gulmezoglu, a scientist who edited the series, said Gabriela Paz-Bailey stepped down as an author of the paper after the CDC questioned the article.

Kathryn Harben, a spokeswoman for the CDC's coordinating office for global health, said all CDC scientists must submit any article to a peer review panel.

If an article does not complete the peer review process, Harben said, CDC policies dictate that the agency's scientists cannot be included as an author of the work.

Copyright 2006 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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