By Denise Tessier
Since May 23, the Albuquerque Journal article “Health Dept. Official Resigns After Pushing Condoms,” has lain on my desk; I’ve been waiting to see if the Journal would produce an editorial in defense of the doctor who resigned.
A week later, “State Sees Spike In Cases of Gonorrhea” was the headline on a front-page Journal story by the same reporter, giving editors the factual support they could use in writing such an editorial assignment, should they have chosen to accept it.
It’s June 5, and there is still no editorial questioning the propriety of chief medical officer Dr. Erin Bouquin being asked to resign just hours after she had urged New Mexicans, in a televised interview, to “use condoms” to combat a statewide rise in sexually transmitted diseases.
There was no editorial pointing out that Bouquin was doing her job, that she had made an entirely responsible and sensible statement and that it seemed odd the New Mexico Department of Health would dismiss her just four months after she was hired, telling a reporter it had nothing to do with the interview but was part of an agency reorganization.
Instead, the Journal let its letter writers point out those things.
Four letters under the headline “Politics and Pregnancy” filled half of today’s letters page (and was promoted at the top of A1). Its subhead: “A doctor’s advocacy of condom use and her dismissal from the state Department of Health raise questions about public policy and responsible advice.”
A letter from medical doctor Bruce G. Trigg led the package, saying:
Question: When does doing your job make you lose your job? Answer: When you work for the New Mexico Department of Health and Gov. Susana Martinez.
As reporter Olivier Uyttebrouck reported in his first story May 23, Dr. Bouquin “was forced to resign . . . just hours after she was quoted in a television interview advocating the use of condoms to control sexually transmitted diseases.”
Bouquin said her remarks were “the most likely explanation” for her dismissal from the $160,000-a-year post. But she said the explanation she was given by Health Secretary Catherine Torres was that she had not met the governor’s expectations. Uyttebrouck reported that state officials he contacted said the firing had no connection to the interview comments, but was related to agency reorganization.
The reporter also contacted the governor’s office, which, through spokesman Scott Darnell, replied in a written statement that the governor gave the Department of Health no direction regarding Bouquin’s dismissal. According to the news story, which was buried along the center fold line of page C2:
“The governor is a proponent of taking a balanced and multi-pronged approach to controlling the spread of sexually transmitted diseases; there is nothing in Dr. Bouquin’s interview that would conflict with that approach,” Darnell said.
The next paragraph in the news story hints at what that “multi-pronged approach” might be:
Bouquin noted that the department has applied for a federal grant to pay for abstinence-only education to curb sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy. The message of condom use contradicts the abstinence-only approach, she said.
So, would it be that Bouqin’s comments about condoms would jeopardize chances the state would receive the grant?
Meanwhile, New Mexico has a serious problem with STDs.
From the first news story:
Bouquin said she agreed to the KOAT interview to discuss data showing a spike in gonorrhea and chlamydia rates. The increases include a 90 percent increase in gonorrhea rates among girls ages 15-19 from 2010 to 2011, she said.
“That’s definitely the news,” Bouquin said. “That’s why I don’t want to make it about me. I think it’s important that we don’t shy away from the important issues.”
The May 30 front-page story about the spike in gonorrhea cases confirms Bouquin’s statements, saying:
The largest increase occurred in teenage girls.
The number of cases reported among girls ages 15 to 19 climbed 90 percent in 2011, from 185 cases in 2010 to 351 cases in 2011, according to health department data.
Another hard-hit group (was) New Mexico men ages 25-29. Cases of gonorrhea in that group increased 64 percent from 274 in 2010 to 449 in 2011.
Increases were observed in virtually all age groups for both men and women. New Mexicans ages 15 to 34 account for most of the state’s gonorrhea cases.
The data probably underestimate the number of infections. Nationally, at least 700,000 people a year are infected with the gonorrhea bacteria, and fewer than half of those cases are reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The story, which jumped from A1 to A4 and included a graphic chart and information box on the disease and how to get tested, did not mention the controversy at the Department of Health or Bouquin’s dismissal, which is fine.
But where does that leave New Mexico? We – especially our teenage girls – have a serious problem and our state department of health seems to have a muddled idea on how to approach it, focusing on abstinence and testing for infection, and trying to ignore the obvious protection afforded by condoms.
Letter writer Lee Sonne of Truth or Consequences did a little research and concluded that “comprehensive sex education is the only answer,” saying:
. . .the Netherlands has not only the lowest abortion rate but the lowest rate of teen pregnancy. In fact, the country has held this distinction for decades. Researchers credit strategies like sex education in schools, discussion of sexuality in the mass media, and easy access to contraception. …
New Mexico ranks second in the nation for teen pregnancy and third for poverty. The two are closely related: a teen mother has a 64 percent chance of raising her child in poverty. We are obviously not taking good care of our young people at all! They need the truth, they need correct information and they need our caring about their futures rather than caring more for our embarrassment over discussing responsible sexuality or whatever it is that keeps us mired in the Victorian era. …
They need the truth, they need correct information and they need our caring about their futures rather than caring more for our embarrassment over discussing responsible sexuality or whatever it is that keeps us mired in the Victorian era. …I couldn’t have said it better.
It would help if the Journal would take a position on condoms vs. abstinence, but at the moment it looks like they’d prefer not to touch it with a 10-foot pole.