February 8, 1995 in Nation/World

Clinton Caught In Cross Fire Over Foster Opponents Find New Allegations Against Surgeon General Nominee

Angie Cannon Knight-Ridder
 

Anti-abortion groups intensified the battle over President Clinton’s choice for surgeon general Tuesday, charging that Dr. Henry Foster headed research in the early 1980s on a drug to induce early abortions.

The charge is the latest in a string of disclosures imperiling the nomination of Foster, a gynecologist and obstetrician from Tennessee who the White House had hoped would be a less controversial figure than former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.

Clinton now faces the dilemma of whether to withdraw yet another embattled nominee.

If the president decides to stick with Foster, he will face a contentious debate about abortion with the new GOP-controlled Senate. If he abandons Foster, questions again will be raised about his commitment to his nominees and the administration’s thoroughness in checking their backgrounds.

Either way, the nomination quickly is turning into a big embarrassment for the president.

“The White House has badly mishandled a nomination in which they should have been sensitive to the issues that would be raised,” Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., said Tuesday. Abortion, she said, “should not be a litmus-test issue regarding Dr. Foster, but whether the White House or myself or anyone else believes it should be, it is.”

Another abortion-rights supporter, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said: “I am very much concerned about the allegations that Dr. Foster misrepresented his record. If the issue is veracity and character, that may be a basis for disqualification.”

The controversy has mushroomed because last week Foster said he had performed “fewer than a dozen pregnancy terminations” in three decades as an obstetriciangynecologist, but recent disclosures suggest the figure may have been much higher.

Before Foster’s nomination was announced, an administration official told Kassebaum that Foster had performed only one abortion. Kassebaum is a key figure because she heads the Senate committee that will consider Foster’s nomination.

Foster’s record came under fire Tuesday as the National Right to Life anti-abortion organization charged that he had headed research on a drug to induce early abortions in at least 59 women in the early 1980s.

The drug study, financed by Upjohn Pharmaceutical Co., involved administering prostaglandin drugs in the form of vaginal suppositories to women who were as much as eight weeks pregnant. The do-it-yourself abortion drug was not subsequently produced for marketing.

The White House said it was aware when it nominated Foster of his work on the Federal Drug Administration-approved drug trials, which he supervised when he was chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Meharry Medical College in Nashville.

On Monday, anti-abortion groups distributed a transcript of Foster’s comments at a 1978 ethics advisory board meeting of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, during which he was quoted as saying, “I have done a lot of amniocentesis and therapeutic abortions, probably near 700.”

Administration officials said Foster “flatly denied” saying that.

Amniocentesis is a procedure to determine whether a fetus is developing normally. Doctors say the number of amniocentesis procedures that actually result in abortion is “very small.” A “therapeutic abortion” means there is a medical reason for it.

Foster even came under attack Tuesday from an abortion-rights group.

The National Coalition of Abortion Providers called for the withdrawal of Foster’s nomination, charging that his “equivocation and political cowardice in the face of criticism for doing what is legal and integral to women’s lives is inappropriate in a physician who will represent millions of American women.”

Some congressional Democrats also criticized the White House.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., one of a group of Democratic members of Congress who called a press conference Tuesday to support Foster, said it was “deplorable” that the administration had helped undercut Foster’s nomination by getting into a debate over how many and what kind of abortions he performed.

The surgeon general is a bully pulpit position and heads the Public Health Service. Clinton’s former surgeon general, Elders, caused him so much grief he fired her in December after she suggested the idea of covering masturbation in school should perhaps be considered.

At the White House Tuesday, Press Secretary Mike McCurry emphasized “the president is steadfastly supportive of the nominee.”

But McCurry disclosed that Fos ter now is compiling an exhaustive account of his medical record, including any abortions he participated in or supervised, to answer the questions coming from Capitol Hill.

McCurry also said officials were reviewing the 1978 transcript to see if it reflected what he said at the meeting.

McCurry stressed that Clinton believed the number of abortions Foster performed should not be a factor in the consideration of his nomination.

McCurry said Clinton was “only

surprised that there were those that would … make this nomination a litmus test on the issue of choice, and that is what’s happening here.”

Meanwhile, Foster’s friends and some abortion rights organizations are rallying to his defense.

Dr. William Andrews, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said Foster is “one of the leaders in education in ob-gyn, and he is seemingly well respected within the profession. … He is a man of great integrity, an honest, compassionate man.”

Andrews said the majority of obgyns Foster’s age, 61, have done abortions.

“Fifteen years ago, they were done in hospitals by most practicing ob-gyns,” he said. “A doctor with a typical 30-year practice would have done more than a dozen, more like 50 to 100.”

Dr. David Satcher, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said: “The irony of it is he is known for leading programs to prevent teenage pregnancy and reduce infant mortality. I was at Meharry for 12 years, and I never knew Hank Foster as an abortionist physician. That was not his reputation.”

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