Surgeon general nominee disavows previous views on gays

President Bush’s surgeon general nominee yesterday faced tough questioning from Democrats at a Senate hearing, even though he disavowed a controversial report he wrote in 1991 about homosexuality.

Democrats on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee used the hearing on John Holsinger as a platform to excoriate the Bush administration for ignoring scientific evidence for ideological reasons.

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“We must be confident that the surgeon general will put public health first and leave politics and ideology behind,” said panel Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), repeating Democratic complaints about the administration’s record on issues such as embryonic stem cell research, the morning-after pill and climate change.

“The White House has muzzled scientists, rewritten reports to exclude science-based views, and limited the ability of scientific leaders to draw independent conclusions based on science,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
 Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) warned that the hearing’s “essential problem” was that “the most important witnesses are not
here.”

“That is the president of the United States, the vice president, [presidential adviser] Karl Rove, and other political appointees,” said Sanders. “They will dictate what your job is.”

Democratic senators at times took hostile tones. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) opened the questioning by raising the complaints of Arabic translators who said they were fired from military jobs because they were gay.

Asked Brown: “Given your past statements on homosexuality, what do you see as the greater threat to the health and safety of Americans: untranslated documents and intercepts from al Qaeda or gay people?”

The hearing coincided with Kennedy’s introduction of a bill to shield surgeons general from political pressure. One provision would require the president to select a nominee from a list of candidates drawn up by the prestigious Institute of Medicine.

Meanwhile, ranking member Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and other committee Republicans defended Holsinger’s qualifications and criticized Democrats for focusing on the homosexuality report.

“I don’t know why anybody ever puts their names up before the United States Senate” to be attacked, Enzi said. He added that Holsinger had earned his confidence that he would not place his personal views above his medical judgment.

In response to the questioning, Holsinger unequivocally said he does not discriminate against gays in his medical practice and policy positions.

“I have worked diligently throughout my 40-year medical career to provide quality healthcare to everyone,” he said. “I have a profound respect for the essential human dignity of all people, regardless of background or sexual orientation.”

The hearing took place two days after President Bush’s first surgeon general, Richard Carmona, testified to a House panel that political appointees regularly stifled his attempts to air views when they conflicted with the White House’s positions on issues such as contraception and embryonic stem cell research.

Holsinger vowed he would step down from his post if he experienced inappropriate political pressure and that he would first try to arrive at a consensus on the issue at hand. But he added: “Quite candidly, if I were unable to do that and I was being overridden, if necessary I would resign.”

The nominee also expressed views on several health issues that contradict positions taken by the Bush administration.
Holsinger said that abstinence education should be only one part of sexual education for teenagers; that consumer advertising of prescription drugs should be banned; and that he was open to restricting junk food ads that target children and limiting the sale of junk food in schools.

The position of surgeon general carries limited authority. But Holsinger and committee members noted that the role provides a prominent bully pulpit that can influence national attitudes about health matters such as tobacco use and obesity.

C. Everett Koop, who was surgeon general under President Reagan, endorsed Holsinger’s nomination in a letter sent to Kennedy this month.

But the biggest obstacle facing Holsinger, a former senior official at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and former Kentucky state health official, was the paper on homosexual sex that he wrote at the behest of the United Methodist Church.

“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,” Kennedy said, describing the homosexuality report as a “blatant misuse of science.”

Holsinger wrote in the paper that male and female sexual organs complement each other, and that “when the complementarity [sic] of the sexes is breached, injuries and diseases may occur.”

Yesterday, Holsinger disowned the report. “The paper does not represent where I am today, it does not represent who I am today,” he said.

“We are nearly 20 years past the majority of the papers that were cited” in the report, Holsinger added. “I don’t even think the same questions, Mr. Chairman, would be asked today that were asked 20 years ago.”

Other lawmakers brought up the question of competence.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) warned that Holsinger’s relationship with Congress was damaged during his tenure at the VA during the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

“As I recall from those three years, we did not have a good time together. We clashed on a number of issues,” she said, citing disputes about women’s health issues, sexual harassment at VA facilities and efforts to improve the quality of medical care within the VA.

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