Injecting religion into medicine

Published Oct. 11, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

WWJD at the FDA?

We may soon find out, if W. David Hager becomes chairman of the powerful Food and Drug Administration panel on women's health policy. His resume seems more impressive for theology than gynecology.

"Jesus stood up for women at a time when women were second-class citizens," Dr. Hager says. "I often say, if you are liberated, a woman's libber, you can thank Jesus for that."

A professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Kentucky, he has a considerable body of work about Jesus' role in healing women, and last summer he helped the Christian Medical Association with a "citizens' petition" calling on the FDA to reverse its approval of RU-486, the "abortion pill," claiming it puts women at risk. (RU-486 or RU-4Jesus?)

Karen Tumulty reports in Time that the FDA senior associate commissioner, Linda Arey Skladany, a former drug-industry lobbyist with Bush family ties, has rejected doctors proposed by FDA staffers and is pushing Hager.

The policy panel, which helped get RU-486 approved, will lead the study on the hot issue of hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women. As Time notes: "Some conservatives are trying to use doubts about such therapy to discredit the use of birth control pills, which contain similar compounds."

Hager wrote As Jesus Cared for Women, blending biblical accounts of Christ healing women with case studies from his own practice. "Jesus still longs to bring wholeness to women today," the jacket says.

Hager writes about a young patient named Sparkle who gets a job at a strip joint in Kentucky and becomes promiscuous and gets several sexually transmitted diseases. Sparkle reminds him of "a woman Jesus met who was generally known in her town as a sinner, but whom Jesus saw through eyes of love."

With his wife, Linda, he wrote Stress and the Woman's Body, which puts "an emphasis on the restorative power of Jesus Christ in one's life" and recommends Scripture readings to treat headaches (Matthew 13:44-46); eating disorders (Corinthians II, 10:2-5) and premenstrual syndrome (Romans 5:1-11, "Tribulation worketh patience").

To exorcise affairs, the Hagers suggest a spiritual exercise: "Picture Jesus coming into the room. He walks over to you and folds you gently into his arms. He tousles your hair and kisses you gently on the cheek. . . . Let this love begin to heal you from the inside out."

Hager is also an editor of The Reproduction Revolution: A Christian Appraisal of Sexuality, Reproductive Technologies, and the Family. One of the pieces, "Using the Birth Control Pill is Ethically Unacceptable," says scientific data show that the pill causes abortions.

Hager said he disagreed with that piece. He says he prefers not to prescribe contraceptives to single women, but will if they insist and reject his advice to abstain.

He says he does not do abortions, will not prescribe RU-486 and will not insert IUDs. "I am pro-life," he says. "I believe sex outside of marriage is a sin. But I am not against medication. The fact that I'm a person of faith does not deter me from also being a person of science."

But unlike C. Everett Koop, who did not let his evangelical beliefs influence his work as surgeon general, Hager has written that it is "dangerous" to compartmentalize life into "categories of Christian truth and secular truth."

Once again, the Bush administration seems to be sowing skepticism about science for the sake of politics. It has smothered the promise of stem cell research to extend and improve life with the right wing's reverence for "life."

A Washington Post article last month reported that the Bush crowd was restructuring scientific advisory committees on patients' rights and public health, "eliminating some committees that were coming to conclusions at odds with the president's views and in other cases replacing members with handpicked choices."

Dr. David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner who is now dean of the Yale University School of Medicine, warns: "If the criteria to be on an advisory committee are based on a political litmus test, that will set this country back."

Are we so worried about medieval villains abroad that we no longer worry about medievalism at home?

+ Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist. +

New York Times News Service