The Bush administration has appointed a new chief of family-planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services who worked at a Christian pregnancy-counseling organization that regards the distribution of contraceptives as "demeaning to women."
Eric Keroack, medical director for A Woman's Concern, a nonprofit group based in Dorchester, Mass., will become deputy assistant secretary for population affairs in the next two weeks, department spokeswoman Christina Pearson said yesterday.
Keroack, an obstetrician-gynecologist, will advise Secretary Mike Leavitt on matters such as reproductive health and adolescent pregnancy. He will oversee $283 million in annual family-planning grants that, according to HHS, are "designed to provide access to contraceptive supplies and information to all who want and need them with priority given to low-income persons."
The appointment, which does not require Senate confirmation, was the latest provocative personnel move by the White House since Democrats won control of Congress in this month's midterm elections. President Bush last week pushed the Senate to confirm John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations and this week renominated six candidates for appellate court judgeships who have previously been blocked by lawmakers. Democrats said the moves belie Bush's post-election promises of bipartisanship.
The Keroack appointment angered many family-planning advocates, who noted that A Woman's Concern supports sexual abstinence until marriage, opposes contraception and does not distribute information promoting birth control at its six centers in eastern Massachusetts.
"A Woman's Concern is persuaded that the crass commercialization and distribution of birth control is demeaning to women, degrading of human sexuality and adverse to human health and happiness," the group's Web site says.
Keroack was traveling and could not be reached for comment. John O. Agwunobi, assistant secretary for health, said Keroack "is highly qualified and a well-respected physician . . . working primarily with women and girls in crisis."
Mark Conrad, president of A Woman's Concern, said Keroack would be able to make the transition to leading a federal program in which provision of birth control is an integral part. "I don't think it's going to be an issue for him," he said.
The group helps women in unplanned pregnancies but discourages abortions, Conrad said. He said the decision is the woman's but "we do want to give her the opportunity to have all the information and the support necessary to choose life."
Marilyn Keefe, interim president of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, which represents 4,000 family-planning clinics, said Keroack's work "seems to really be geared toward furthering anti-choice, anti-contraception policies." She added that despite the congressional election results, the appointment "goes to show you the importance of controlling the White House and how important federal agencies are in the delivery of health services."
Thousands of clinics
The federal family-planning program, created in 1970, supports a network of 4,600 family-planning clinics that provide information and counseling to 5 million people each year. Services include patient education and counseling, breast and pelvic exams, pregnancy diagnosis and counseling, and screenings for cervical cancer, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.
Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, called Keroack's appointment "striking proof that the Bush administration remains dramatically out of step with the nation's priorities."
Taken together, Keroack's appointment, the Bolton push and the judicial renominations suggest that although Bush may work for consensus with Democrats on selected issues, he does not plan to avoid decisions simply because lawmakers will disagree, and he may in fact seek fights in some instances when he feels they may be useful politically.
Confirmation of Bolton and the judicial nominees are popular causes with Bush's conservative base, and a family-planning chief from an organization that opposes contraceptives may appeal to disaffected social conservatives.
White House spokeswoman Dana M. Perino cautioned against reading a larger pattern into the recent moves, saying, "You have to look at these things in isolation."
She added: "The president has said we will look to reach common ground where we can find it. However, he's not going to compromise on his principles."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.