Dr. Susan Wood blogs on occasion over at The Pump Handle (where we cross post quite often). She is pretty busy these day on another assignment: co-chairman of Obama’s advisory committee for women’s health. And it’s reported one of the first things the Obama administration will do is undo the blue-nosed Bush policy that links funding for public health programs to anti-abortion and anti-birth control policies:
Public-health policies of President George W. Bush’s $45- billion PEPFAR program have brought AIDS drugs to almost 3 million people in poor countries such as Rwanda and Uganda, more than under any other president. Still, requirements that health workers emphasize abstinence from sex and monogamy over condom use have set back sexually transmitted disease prevention and family planning globally, said Susan F. Wood, co-chairman of Obama’s advisory committee for women’s health.
Bush on his first day in office, in January 2001, reinstated the so-called Mexico City Policy — known to critics as the global gag rule. It bars U.S. family-planning assistance for organizations that use funding from any other source to provide counseling and referral for abortion, lobby to make abortion legal or more available in their country, or perform abortions except in cases of a threat to the woman’s life, rape or incest.
Obama “is committed to looking at all this and changing the policies so that family-planning services — both in the U.S. and the developing world — reflect what works, what helps prevent unintended pregnancy, reduce maternal and infant mortality, prevent the spread of disease,” Wood said. (Jason Gale, John Lauerman, Bloomberg)
The good that the Bush Africa policy has done — and it is considerable — has been hampered and sometimes put in reverse by the global gag rule. Obama is set to make the gag rule silent. And Woods (full disclosure; she’s a friend and professional colleague) knows about it first hand, having resigned from the Bush FDA in protest in 2005 for its failure to approve the morning after emergency contraceptive pill after it received clearance from FDA’s scientists and outside experts. From that low point she is now being prominently mentioned in connection with the FDA Commissioner job. A good choice, in our view.
There is a lot of damage to repair. Some prominent and highly effective family planning agencies (including the United Nations Population Fund) refused to take advantage of US aid or were refused aid by the Bush administration because of they continued to offer and use the full spectrum of techniques for population and sexually transmitted disease control. This included educating people in the use of condoms. Abstinence education was the allowed alternative. Numerous studies have shown it is ineffective. So we continue to bail the boat with a teaspoon:
The U.S. has played an important role in bringing life- saving treatment to HIV patients who had been unable to get it, said Adel Mahmoud, a former head of Merck & Co. vaccines and professor in the department of molecular biology at Princeton University.
“But when the data says for every person we put on anti- retroviral therapy in Africa there are six new infections and we are doing nothing about it, it’s absolutely mind-boggling,” he said in a telephone interview. “Prevention is really the solution.”
Mind boggling, yes. And the worst part is that even the suggestion that the US will be returning to a science-based health policy itself feels mind boggling. It’s just a measure of how low we have fallen as a nation.