Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2005 / 28 Shevat, 5765

Jane R. Eisner

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Pro-lifers shouldn't mix issues | Mine Ener was a respected professor at Villanova University until a ferocious bout of postpartum psychosis led her in 2003 to kill her infant daughter, who was born with Down syndrome, and, later, herself.

Grappling with how to memorialize Ener, the university decided to remove a recently hung plaque from a library study area and, instead, host a symposium to educate the public on the mental illness that led to these tragic deaths.

I hope the U.S. Congress will be invited.

That's because, for years now, the U.S. House has delayed action on the Melanie Blocker-Stokes Postpartum Depression Research and Care Act, named for another young mother who killed herself in 2001 after the birth of her daughter. It's hard to understand who could be against legislation to fund research on postpartum depression and psychosis, and provide services for the families devastated by these related, but poorly understood, diseases.

But then, it's hard to understand the mind-set in Congress these days.

The Blocker-Stokes Act languished in committee until congressional leadership finally made it the subject of a hearing last September. It wasn't, however, the only subject.

Against the wishes of the sponsor, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D., Ill.), included in the hearing was discussion of another bill, on "post-abortion depression." I put those words in quotes because there's actually no scientific agreement that such a syndrome exists, and certainly no indication that it affects as many women and families as depression after childbirth.

Both bills went nowhere after the public hearing. Rush intends to reintroduce the Blocker-Stokes Act this week, but he is suddenly having trouble getting any Republicans to sign on as cosponsors. His office reported only three brave souls from across the aisle were willing to put their names on legislation that could save thousands of lives.

I guess it wasn't pro-life enough for them.

So, let's review: The connection between childbirth and psychiatric illness has been recognized since Hippocrates described it more than 2,000 years ago, but it is still too often cavalierly dismissed. As proof, just consider the inane comments made last week by radio show host Craig Carton to New Jersey acting Gov. Richard J. Codey, who dared defend his wife, a sufferer of postpartum depression.

Mary Jo Codey has been brave enough to acknowledge a kind of depression that afflicts about one in five new mothers. Much, much rarer is the extreme postpartum psychosis of Ener and Blocker-Stokes, which affects about 1 in 1,000 women who give birth.

Unfortunately, congressional leaders chose to conflate that real and present danger with the, so far, unproven assumption that abortion causes widespread depression. Even C. Everett Koop, when he was President Reagan's surgeon general (and personally opposed to abortion), concluded after an exhaustive study that the psychological effects of abortion are minuscule from a public health perspective.

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That didn't stop U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts (R., Pa.) from introducing legislation last June to provide $15 million in research and $1.5 million in treatment for a condition for which there is, at best, very weak evidence.

But postpartum depression - and its extreme expression in psychosis - is real, and devastating. It affects not just the mother, but also the family she has created and, tragically, sometimes leaves behind. It is an illness that, to borrow the words of Melanie Blocker-Stokes' mother in her courageous testimony before Congress, "kind of creeps up on the new mommy before anybody really knows what has happened to her."

Melanie Blocker-Stokes' husband, a physician, could not recognize the severity of his wife's symptoms. Obviously, there needs to be widespread public education, access to treatment, and creation of safe havens for mothers at risk to themselves and others.

The politics of abortion have no place in honoring the memory of Melanie Blocker-Stokes or Mine Ener's baby, or the other babies whose births have caused so much suffering. No place at all.

Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.

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