Sorry, wrong number

December 4, 2006

California neuroscientist Rebecca Turner could hardly believe her ears.

Turner, a San Francisco psychology professor,was standing in a store line one recent afternoon when she got a cell phone call from a reporter in New England, asking if she had ever conducted research that found women with multiple sex partners can lose the ability to bond emotionally.

Turner had never written such a thing.


A high-ranking Bush appointee – a man who last month took charge of the nation's family-planning dollars under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – was using the professor's research to promote this theory.

After Turner closed her phone, the cashier asked if the professor was all right.

“I must have looked a little shaken,” Turner said in an interview. “I tried to figure out the logic they used – how they could possibly have reached their conclusion.”

The appointee in question is Eric Keroack, a Massachusetts physician whom President Bush has tapped to supervise federal family planning programs. The Bush administration calls Keroack a national expert on preventing teen pregnancy.


It turns out that Keroack's expertise amounts largely to advocating abstinence. The gynecologist was medical director for A Woman's Concern, a Christian chain of pregnancy centers in his state that discourages abortions, premarital sex and contraception.

In a 2001 paper for the Abstinence Clearinghouse, a nonprofit group that he advised, Keroack and a colleague wrote that having sex with multiple partners alters brain chemistry in a way that makes it harder to form relationships later in life. As evidence, he cited a 1999 paper that Turner had published in the journal Psychiatry.

As lead researcher on that paper, Turner – who teaches at San Francisco's Alliant International University – wanted to study the link between human emotion and oxytocin, a hormone that appears in the blood and may promote bonding. Turner'spreliminary finding was this: When women were asked to recall memories about close relationships, whether familial or romantic, those with a tendency to be anxious about such relationships had lower oxytocin increases than those who were married, living together or dating.


Now, your high school logic teacher would have warned you against assuming causality: Did the anxiety influence the oxytocin, or vice versa?

But here's the kicker: No matter what the level of oxytocin in women who were anxious about close relationships, Turner's paper found that oxytocin activity was “completely unrelated” to the number of previous sexual partners.

Understanding that finding doesn't require a course in logic; a simple ability to read will do. Still, Keroack somehow made the leap that sex with multiple partners inhibits the brain's ability to respond to oxytocin, and therefore the ability to bond.

During a follow-up study three years later, Turner found no links between oxytocin levels and emotional conditions, but that was after Keroack's paper came out.


It's hard to say what Keroack was thinking. Health and Human Services spokeswoman Christina Pearson said Keroack, whose appointment didn't require Senate confirmation, disagreed with the contraception policy at A Woman's Concern, and that he provided contraception to married and unmarried patients during 20 years of private practice.

House Democrats, among them Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, have called for Bush to withdraw Keroack's appointment, but the president wasn't inclined to do that. Instead, Keroack is now deputy assistant secretary for population affairs at Health and Human Services,with authority over $283 million in annual family planning grants that the agency says are “designed to provide access to contraceptive supplies and information to all who want and need them.”

“With someone appointed to such a high office as Keroack, you would expect a better understanding and interpretation of the complexity of science,” Turner said from her San Francisco office. “For some, perhaps there is a wish that neuroscience can direct our moral behavior when life choices seem unclear, or help us to verify how we see the world and the differences between people. At present, that is a tall order.”

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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