Thursday, January 29, 2004

The director of the National Institutes of Health said his agency will continue to fund sex research, including studies involving pornography and prostitution that have been criticized by House Republicans.

“I fully support NIH’s continued investment in research on human sexuality,” Dr. Elia A. Zerhouni wrote in a letter to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, that bypassed the Republican committee chairmen who oversee the agency.

The director’s letter reported on NIH’s “comprehensive review” covering several projects criticized by congressional Republicans and conservative activists.

Those projects included a $147,000 Northwestern University study that paid women to watch pornography, another that studied prostitutes at truck stops and one that examined “two-spirited” transvestites in American Indian cultures.

The letter to Mr. Kennedy echoed Dr. Zerhouni’s remarks earlier this month to an agency advisory committee. “When we looked at the public health relevance, there was no question that these projects should have been funded and should continue to be funded,” the director told the NIH panel, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Critics say the NIH sex studies divert federal tax dollars from potentially life-saving research. Rep. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican, called Dr. Zerhouni’s defense of the projects “an unbelievable rationalization.”

“Do I need a Ph.D. to understand why it is a sensible prioritization to spend hundreds of thousands of research dollars to pay women to watch porn, while countless Americans are suffering from dehabilitating diseases with no cures?” Mr. Souder said in a statement.

The NIH director said he is “initiating discussions … to ensure that this research is better presented to the public so that they may understand the relevance of this research to public health and that it is prioritized appropriately.”

The battle over taxpayer-funded sex research has escalated steadily in Congress over the past year. In July, the House rejected in a 212-210 vote a measure sponsored by Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, that would have eliminated federal funding for five sex studies.

Democrats have defended the research. Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, accused Republicans of “scientific McCarthyism” for questioning the sex studies. “Imposing ideological shackles on this research would be a serious public health mistake,” Mr. Waxman wrote in an October letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, whose department includes NIH.

Although Dr. Zerhouni’s letter to Mr. Kennedy outlined various sexual research projects, it did not specifically address the project most often cited by critics of NIH sex research: Northwestern University psychology professor J. Michael Bailey’s study that paid female subjects as much as $75 each to “watch a series of commercially available film clips, some of which will be sexually explicit” in order to monitor their body’s sexual arousal.

Rep. Dave Weldon, Florida Republican, condemned as “disgusting” the NIH decision to fund the Bailey study.

In November, Northwestern announced an ethics investigation of Mr. Bailey, who has been accused of violating federal law by failing to obtain consent from subjects used in research for his recent book, “The Man Who Would Be Queen.”

One of the complainants in the ethics probe — described under the pseudonym “Juanita” in Mr. Bailey’s book — consulted the professor in 1996 to obtain psychological approval for sex-change surgery. “Juanita” filed an affidavit with the university saying that two years after undergoing the surgery, she had sex with the professor. His book subsequently cited her behavior as validating Mr. Bailey’s theories of sexuality.

NIH is “clueless” for defending Mr. Bailey, said University of Michigan professor Lynn Conway.

“Taxpayer money is not just being wasted in sex research at Northwestern University — it’s being used to exploit and defame transsexual women in the name of science,” said Ms. Conway, a pioneering computer scientist who was born male and underwent sex-change surgery in 1968.

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