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The contraception connection

President Bush wants the United States to be a place where no abortions are performed, yet he is presiding over a country that has thwarted research and development that would significantly reduce the need for women to consider that option. When will he make the connection?

A comprehensive report by the National Academy of Sciences outlines the shameful state of birth control in the United States. Three decades after oral contraceptives became available, not much else has been introduced in the field. Research has dwindled to almost nothing, with only one major U.S. company actively involved in developing new and improved methods.

European countries have far surpassed the United States, providing such alternatives as injections that work for three months and contraceptive implants that are placed under the skin and are effective for up to five years. RU 486, a pill that prevents a fertilized egg from developing into a pregnancy, is approved for use in France and China. Human testing of male contraceptives is under way.

"The United States has gone from being a world leader to being in the backwaters," said Dr. David A. Grimes, a contraception specialist at the University of Southern California. With the minor amount of research being conducted still in need of extensive testing, Grimes told the St. Petersburg Times, "We're condemned to another decade or decade and a half of nothing new."

It's nothing new, then, that in the United States, where effective options are limited and educating young people about how to deal with sex is widely opposed, more than 3-million women a year become pregnant unintentionally, nearly half of them because contraceptives failed. Half of the unplanned pregnancies end in abortion.

How is it that a president who is eager to speak out against abortion also has been tolerant of, if not instrumental in, the placement of political, regulatory, legal and financial barriers to birth control research? Abortion opponents who have curried favor with President Bush have galvanized forces against contraception that affects fertilized eggs. The federal Food and Drug Administration has refused to approve methods that many other countries have allowed. Pharmaceutical companies have steered away from contraceptive research because of fear of costly lawsuits and a lack of government financing. During the Reagan and Bush administrations, money for contraception research has been cut and research by federal scientists restricted.

The National Academy of Sciences report aptly concludes it is imperative that these barriers be knocked down. Increased federal support of research, as legislation before Congress by U.S. Reps. Patricia Schroeder and Olympia Snowe would facilitate, is a vital step.

More important, however, is that there be greater official acknowledgment of the health benefits to women of safe, effective birth control methods. Approximately 95 percent of sexually active, child-bearing-age women in the United States rely on contraceptives. President Bush is missing an incredible opportunity if he does not embrace the need to encourage contraception research and development as a national priority.

No one is happy about the idea of abortion, not those who support the right of a woman to be able to choose that option, certainly not the women who face the troubling decision. Mr. Bush needs to make the connection between contraception, abortion and respect for the health and lives of women and their families. Doing so would serve a purpose far greater than just his own.