When White House appointees claim impotence, why doesn’t the press do more than giggle?

By Kathryn Joyce

The appointment of anti-abortion and anti-birth control advocate Dr. W. David Hager to the FDA’s Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee apparently seems like such an oxymoron that, two years later, people still can’t believe it happened. Emails urging protest of Bush’s appointment still circulate, and the Urban Legends Reference Pages website has had to dedicate a webpage to the issue, Status: True.

But Hager, a member of Focus on the Family and author of the book, As Jesus Cared for Women: Restoring Women Then and Now, really was appointed, really was reappointed this June, and as Mother Jones’s Chris Mooney reports, really does exert a powerful influence on women’s health policy.

Last December Hager successfully kept “Plan B” emergency contraception pills from being sold over the counter, despite being in the minority of a 23-4 vote, and the testimony of another physician on the panel that the drug was “‘the safest product we have seen brought before us.’” This veto required the FDA to take the unusual step of ignoring the panel’s and its own staff’s recommendations. They instead cited Hager’s opposition — what former FDA commissionerDonald Kennedy calls a “‘political fig leaf’” — that the drug hadn’t been tested widely enough on adolescents.

But still, in what is becoming a familiar refrain from members of the Bush administration, the modest Hager argues that “he is being miscast ‘as some kind of powerful individual,'” even as his officially-heeded objections clash with his public statements on the issue. Speaking to The New York Times’s Gina Kolata last December, Hager said Plan B would encourage promiscuity among young people, who “could just buy the drug on their own.” He did not mention the complaint he’d brought before the FDA panel of “inadequate” sampling of teenagers, but rather spoke of the “‘individuals who did not want to take responsibility for their actions and wanted a medication to relieve those consequences.'” Later Times articles on the FDA’s refusal to grant over-the-counter access to the pill failed to mention Hager at all.

While it certainly makes reporters’ jobs harder to have to parse through demurrals like Hager’s, or more recently, the post-scandal claims of administration apologists arguing for Deal Hudson’s relative unimportance to Bush, it should be something they’re used to by now. It’s a lesson from more than four years ago: As Bush said, when they speak, we will know their hearts; when they act, we’ll know their reasons too.

Read more: Beyond Roe: Access Denied