neuroscientist Rebecca Turner could hardly believe her
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
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.
ABSTINENCE FOUND HERE
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
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
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