Can't get enough baby talk

IF YOU THINK it's hard to get a straight answer from your credit card company when you call to dispute a charge, try calling a federally funded "pregnancy resource center." A study released Monday by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) found that 20 of 23 such centers nationwide, many of which are connected with religious antiabortion groups, misinformed callers about the risks associated with abortion.

In a sting operation worthy of a "Mean Girls" remake, female investigators posing as 17-year-olds were told that abortion is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer ("as much as 80%," said one counselor) and infertility ("permanent damage to many women," said another). Waxman's report also cited instances in which callers were warned of "post-abortion stress disorder," a syndrome "much like that seen in soldiers returning from Vietnam."

I won't go on a tear about the lunacy of these claims. The medical community has proved that there is no credible link between abortion and breast cancer. As for stress disorders, the American Psychological Assn. found that "severe negative reactions are rare, and they parallel those following other normal life stresses." However, we've long known that infertility and "permanent damage" goe hand in hand with abortion -- unless it's legal.

Sure, we pro-choicers love to catch our opponents in a lie, but these tactics are pretty old news. The organizations Waxman's investigators called were associated with pro-life networks. And although it's true that in the last five years these programs have received $30 million in federal funding, mostly for abstinence-only education, it's also true that Planned Parenthood gets federal funding as well. Granted, abortion providers haven't been caught claiming that unwanted pregnancies carried to term result in cancer, but when you consider the paroxysms common to both sides of the debate, Waxman's report is more bemusing than surprising.

Besides, as embarrassed as the pro-lifers should have been on Monday, their luck turned on Wednesday when President Bush exercised his first veto on legislation to expand support for embryonic stem cell research. In a nearreplay of a photo op he employed in May 2005, Bush surrounded himself with families whose children had been "adopted" as embryos originally created for in vitro fertilization. He said the children "remind us of all that is lost when embryos are destroyed in the name of research."

Never mind that, legally speaking, an embryo can't be adopted, only donated, and never mind that a significant percentage of in vitro embryos, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, do not survive the freeze-and-thaw process, let alone result in a pregnancy. What may ultimately matter most about the president's maneuver is the way, in a culture ruled by visual images, it feeds our inability to separate the realties of parenting from the sentimental aura that surrounds children.

As manipulative as the president's embryonic family reunion might seem, it's not that far from what confronts us in the supermarket checkout line. We are, judging from the magazine racks, a baby-crazed nation. If there's anything tabloids love more than celebrity plastic surgery, it's celebrity offspring.

Apparently we can't hear enough about babies. We want to know who among the famous has them, who wishes they had them, who drives them around without car seats, gives them weird names or sells their photos for $4.1 million. We want to see their improbably svelte post-labor figures, learn what brand of stroller they bought and which designer decorated the nursery. We want to hear about how parenthood is "a true joy" (Brad Pitt), "totally spectacular" (Tom Cruise) and evidently fun enough to motivate getting pregnant again months later (Britney Spears, age 24).

For all we're told about the fissure between popular culture and the family-values crowd, our obsession with babies may unite both sides more than we realize. The Bush administration, like the tabloids, knows that babies are a great marketing tool. Whether you're selling magazines or domestic policy, there's no better way to make complex issues look simple than to use a poster child who is, literally, a child.

The problem, however, is that we rarely hear about the hard work necessary to be a good parent, much less the inherent complications of family life. More often, children are presented as accessories. Whether it's Bush holding a former embryo or a celebrity showing off her infant's Prada onesie, the message we're sent insinuates that freedom's just another word for obtaining stuff and producing more people who will grow up and obtain even more stuff.

Just as there's no excuse for being cavalier about abortion, there's no excuse for giving out misinformation about its effects. So on that score, hooray for Waxman. But when you consider our diet of baby media -- that gale force of adorable moppets shown off by parents whose nannies are conveniently edited out of the frame -- there isn't much propaganda the administration (or antiabortion groups) can feed a teen that People magazine already hasn't.

That is unless Britney Spears gets a job answering the phone at a pregnancy resource center. It could happen. She has a family to support.

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