Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Democrats call for ouster of health official

Democrats call for ouster of health official
By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Several Democratic lawmakers asked the Bush administration on Monday to replace its new family-planning chief because he has worked for a health provider that opposes the use of birth control.

Dr. Eric Keroack's record as an opponent of birth control and abortion makes him a poor choice to oversee a $280 million reproductive-health program, seven House of Representatives Democrats said in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.

"We are concerned that Dr. Keroack has promoted policies -- including the refusal to distribute contraception even to married women -- that directly conflict with the mission of the federal program," the letter said.

Keroack last week was named head of HHS's Office of Population Affairs, which funds birth control, pregnancy tests, breast-cancer screening and other health services for 5 million poor people annually. HHS estimates that the program helps to prevent 1.3 million unwanted pregnancies each year.

The office also oversees a $30 million program that encourages sexual abstinence among teens.

An HHS spokeswoman said Keroack is a skilled doctor and a nationally recognized expert on preventing teen pregnancy.

"We have confidence that he'll perform his duties effectively and in accordance with the law," HHS spokeswoman Christina Pearson said by e-mail.

Keroack previously served as medical director for A Woman's Concern, a chain of Boston-area pregnancy clinics that advise against the use of contraception and advocate abstinence as a way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Keroack has spoken at abstinence conferences across the country and has written that people who have more than one sex partner have a diminished neurological capacity to experience loving relationships.

His appointment does not need to be approved by the Senate, but Democrats will have the power to force him to testify when they control Congress next year.

One of those who signed the letter, California Rep. Henry Waxman, will be chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, while New York Rep. Louise Slaughter is expected to chair the Rules Committee. Others sit on committees that oversee HHS and control its budget.

"Less than two weeks ago the American public made it clear that they want a middle ground approach to our nation's most pressing problems," New York Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey said in a statement. "Unfortunately, this appointment says loudly and clearly that the president simply did not get that message."