Unfair decision 

Ravalli County's flawed rationale for rejecting funding

Earlier this month, Ravalli County Commissioner Suzy Foss wrote an editorial in the Ravalli Republic explaining her decision to reject a $50,000 federal grant for local family planning services. Ravalli was the only county in Montana to reject Title X money this year, and on Oct. 1 the public health department shut down its clinic for the first time in 40 years.

According to Foss, she rejected the money because Title X does not require doctors to notify the parents of minor patients before prescribing birth control or administering treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

"Water runs downhill, the path of least resistance," she writes. "So to [sic] does human kind [sic] when enabled."

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  • Suzy Foss

So kudos to Foss for preventing the kind humans of Ravalli County from descending into moral turpitude or getting screened for ovarian cancer. Surely a few tumors are a small price to pay for making sure that no teenage girl gets cured of chlamydia without her parents finding out.

As Foss notes, "the law states that a parent cannot prevent a minor child from getting reproductive health care so why deny them the right to participate in an area where children are most vulnerable. [sic]" Demanding parental notification will only make it easier for parents to ensure that they don't accidentally keep their kids from getting care, so that part of her argument makes sense.

I am concerned, though, that the rest of Foss' editorial forces Ravalli residents to make decisions they are not qualified to make. Specifically, they will have to decide whether she is dishonest or merely ignorant.

As with any controversy, there is compelling evidence on both sides. For example, Foss claims that her decision to reject free money from the government and close the Ravalli family planning clinic was a matter of religious freedom.

"Those who first stepped upon our shore did so seeking religious freedom," she writes. "Our very foundation of liberty is based upon the rock of Judeo-Christian faith."

That argument is intellectually dishonest in the extreme. It might pass for ignorance, since the first people who stepped on our shores were looking for herds of migratory mammals, and the next were Columbus (route to India, gold) and John Smith (gold, creepy relationship with descendants of mammal hunters.)

But Foss presumably means the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, who indeed fled religious persecution in England right before they started burning witches and sewing letters on people's shirts. They probably would agree with the commissioner's claim that religious freedom means stopping others from getting health care your religion doesn't like. To the rest of us, that argument is kind of cynical.

But maybe she just didn't think it through. There's reason to believe that Foss does not exactly run to ground every idea she comes across.

For example, she writes that "In a July 29, 2005 press release, the World Health Organization declared that combined estrogen-progestogen [sic] oral contraceptives are carcinogenic to humans. Specifically, they said that 'Use of OC's increases risk of breast, cervix, and liver cancer.'"

Those two sentences appear verbatim on the website chastity.com. The WHO press release they cite, however, goes on to say that use of oral contraceptives decreases the risk of endometrial and ovarian cancers. It also says breast cancer risk returns to normal 10 years after contraceptive use ends, and that the correlation with cervical cancer is likely because women who take birth control are more likely to contract HPV.

So maybe Foss only spread misinformation about oral contraceptives and cancer because she doesn't like to read. That wouldn't be lying, and she put a quotation mark at the beginning of the sentences she lifted from chastity.com—although not at the end, and also she didn't cite them—so it's at most 33-percent plagiarism.

Maybe, like a drunk person who urges another drunk person to climb a tree, Foss is not so much deceitful as comparably impaired. That's the problem with her argument: It makes the race between ignorance and lying too close to call.

"It was from the pulpit that the concept of freedom first took flight," she writes. If she added "and incinerated the ancient Greeks," we would know she was lying. By the same token, when she says that there is little to no research on how birth control pills affect the "developing reproductive organs of our youth," we would know she hadn't done her reading if only she'd added "except for 50 years of FDA studies."

As it is, we are forced to decide for ourselves whether Foss doesn't know about that research or simply hopes we don't. And that is an area where we are not qualified to speculate.

Asking us to decide whether Foss is a liar or merely ignorant is like asking a woman in Ravalli County to guess whether she has ovarian cancer. It's like wondering if poor people shouldn't get the pill because George Washington went to church. It's like asking a teenage girl where she can get an abortion without her dad finding out.

You'd have to be heartless to do that, or maybe just stupid and proud.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and lying at combatblog.net. His column appears every other week in theIndependent.

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