American Rhythms FDA appointee spurs debate on need to reduce abortion
By Jane Eisner
The Internet rumors were flying fast and furious again this week,
implying that a palace coup was in the works at the Food and Drug
Administration's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee.
The focus of concern was the selection of W. David Hager to be
(depending on which version of the rumor you received) either a member
or the chair of the committee, which advises the FDA on matters relating
to drugs used in obstetrics, gynecology and related specialities.
Hager was portrayed as an extremist whose pro-life, anti-contraception
positions and strong religious beliefs made him an inappropriate, even
dangerous person on a committee designed to protect women's reproductive
In a postelection funk, I decided to check this out, and here's what I
found: The rumors about Hager are inaccurate and unfair; worse, they
serve to distract attention from the more important issue, which is how
to address the increasing rate of abortions during the Bush
First, the facts. The point about Hager's possible appointment is moot.
He's already there. He's a conservatively oriented physician who speaks
frequently about his views of Christian health care, and he does promote
abstinence to the young, unmarried women he sees in his practice in
But he told me in an interview yesterday that he will prescribe
birth-control pills if asked. He doesn't believe that contraception is a
form of abortion, although that view was included in a book he edited.
(So was the opposing view.)
Last year, he voted against allowing emergency contraception to be sold
over the counter because there were no age restrictions and he was
concerned that teenage girls would use the so-called "Plan B" as
ordinary birth control. If, like alcohol, it was restricted to those 21
and over, he "would reconsider."
Most of his colleagues on the advisory panel didn't agree with that
vote. The FDA subsequently went with the minority opinion and asked for
further study on the impact of Plan B on teens - which, of course, could
be just a way to shelve the issue. Indeed, it's not on the agenda for
the panel's next meeting in December.
Still, a difference of opinion should not be a disqualification for a
committee that can do its best work by including a variety of informed
perspectives. Especially since there is a bigger task at hand: To
address what appears to be an increasing rate of abortion, despite
attempts to restrict access and acceptability.
A study done by Glen Harold Stassen, a professor of Christian ethics at
Fuller Theological Seminary, and Gary Krane, an independent journalist,
examined whatever state data were available for the last few years
(since federal reports go only to 2000). They found that although
abortion rates were at a 24-year low when President Bush took office,
that trend appears to have reversed.
Michigan's rate increased by 11.3 percent from 2000 to 2003, and
Kentucky's by 3.2 percent. The number of abortions in Colorado went from
4,463 in 2001 to 9,852 in 2003. The number even went up in the
President's home state of Texas.
In fact, of the 16 states for which data were available, only seven
showed a decrease. And since most of the data came from conservative
Midwestern states (with better reporting systems), Stassen thinks the
national picture would be far more alarming.
As an ardent pro-lifer, he is alarmed. Stassen contends that the
abortion rate is directly tied to economic and social conditions, and
that women are more likely to terminate a pregnancy if they are
unemployed, unmarried, and without adequate health insurance.
When I queried Hager for his views on reducing abortion, he talked about
the need for sexual education that would teach abstinence, but also
provide information to those who chose to be sexually active.
Here is the crux of the matter: Two different approaches, both worthy of
discussion. America should be having this discussion in a full and
respectful way, without implying that only one view embraces morality,
or only one perspective honors science.
Turning David Hager's appointment into an object of hysteria - or,
conversely, turning him into some sort of martyr - distracts us from the
more pressing imperative to understand why a growing number of women in
this country terminate a pregnancy. Let's swamp the Internet with talk
Contact columnist Jane Eisner at 215-854-4530 or
Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/janeeisner.