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Surgeon General Nominee Holsinger Testifies He Would Resign if Politically Pressured; Former Surgeon General Carmona Says Administration Suppressed His Opinions

During his hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, President Bush’s nominee for Surgeon General, Dr. James W. Holsinger Jr., stated that he is committed to science and would resign if pressured to alter his recommendations for ideological reasons.  “I would use the science to attempt to educate the policymakers,” said Dr. Holsinger, a prominent Kentucky physician and former government official. “Quite candidly, if I were unable to do that and I was being overridden … I would resign.”1

The hearing fell only two days after an appearance by former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Carmona, who held the position from 2002 to 2006, said the Bush administration routinely blocked him from speaking out or issuing reports on such issues as human embryonic stem cell research, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, and emergency contraception. He also said that the administration often edited his speeches for politically controversial content and encouraged him to attend internal political meetings. 

In his testimony, Dr. Carmona said that time and time again officials within the Bush administration had made decisions on public health issues based on politics, not science, including dismissing global warming as a liberal cause and working to suppress a report on the dangers of second-hand smoke. Dr. Carmona was also suppressed when he tried to promote sexuality education that included discussions of contraceptives because such programs have been scientifically proven to be effective.  “However there was already a policy in place that did not want to hear the science but wanted to preach abstinence only, but I felt that was scientifically incorrect,” Carmona said.2

While questions of political interference were definitely on the minds of Senators during the hearing, there was also concern as to whether Dr. Holsinger’s personal opinions would hinder his ability to be an effective Surgeon General. Dr. Holsinger is a member of the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination’s “Supreme Court.”  In his role on the Council, he opposed a decision to allow a lesbian to be an associate pastor and supported a pastor who would not permit an openly gay man to join the church.  More disturbingly, as a member of the United Methodist Church’s Committee to Study Homosexuality, Dr. Holsinger authored a paper titled “Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality,” in which he equates homosexuality with disease and argues that homosexuality runs counter to anatomical and physiological truths.  His record also shows his support for reparative therapy to “cure” gays and lesbians, an approach that is widely discredited by mainstream medical and scientific organizations.

SIECUS along with several organizations that focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues and HIV/AIDS announced our opposition to the nomination of Dr. Holsinger for the post of U.S. Surgeon General and sent individual letters to HELP Committee members expressing their disapproval.  Those organizations and many others joined together to send a separate sign-on letter to the HELP Committee with close to 80 signatories expressing concern over Dr. Holsinger’s “long documented history of prejudice towards lesbians and gay men.”  The letter asked HELP Committee members to “please remember that the mission of the Surgeon General is to serve as America’s chief health educator” and stated that, “As America’s doctor, the Surgeon General must be devoted to helping ALL American’s lead healthy lives and be firmly committed to science.”  The letter noted that, “A Surgeon General with a record of prejudice towards and bias against lesbians and gay men would likely be a divisive, polarizing figure and detrimental to the health and well being of all Americans.”  The groups urged HELP committee members to oppose the nomination because “a Surgeon General who is not committed to evidence-based science would jeopardize public heath efforts such as the prevention, care, and treatment of HIV/AIDS.” 

During the Committee hearing, Holsinger testified that he thought using condoms was important for the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and suggested that it was appropriate for teens to learn about condoms.  He also supported a ban on advertising for prescription drugs and underscored his advocacy for higher tobacco taxes.  These comments did little to endear him to Republican Senators attempting to usher the Bush nominee through the process.

Advocates and several members of Congress remained skeptical of Dr. Holsinger despite his answers during the Committee hearing.  “Many of us are concerned about aspects of Dr. Holsinger’s record that indicate that Dr. Holsinger has let his ideological beliefs cloud his scientific judgment,” said Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA.), the committee chairman. “These concerns are serious at any time, but all the more so in light of Dr. Carmona’s alarming testimony.”3

References

  1. Ricardo Alonso-Zalidivar, “Surgeon gen. nominee defends himself,” Los Angeles Times, 13 July 2007, accessed 24 July 2007, <http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/politics/la-na-urgeon13jul13,1,6079124.story?ctrack=1&cset=true>.
  2. Leonard Doyle, “Surgeon General was ‘gagged by White House,’” Belfast Telegraph, 12 July 2007, accessed 24 July 2007, <http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/world-news/article2759331.ece>.
  3. Ibid.

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