Dr. Henry Foster, President Clinton’s embattled nominee for surgeon general, performed a small number of hysterectomies to sterilize severely mentally retarded women two decades ago, a senior administration official said Friday.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Foster performed the sterilizations at a time when the medical community believed such procedures were justified as providing health benefits to the women.
Foster, whose nomination as the nation’s top public health officer has been rocked by revelations that he performed 39 abortions as an obstetrician-gynecologist, mentioned his sterilization work in an article in the Southern Medical Journal.
Dr. Allan Rosenfield, dean of the Columbia School of Public Health, said Friday that sterilizations were done by doctors like Foster in the late 1970s not to prevent retarded women from having children but to alleviate the effects of menstruation for those having difficulty with it.
Foster wrote in the January 1976 issue of the medical journal that obstetricians and gynecologists “must guard vigilantly against the injudicious and indiscriminate removal of the normal uterus.”
“Most gynecologists perform hysterectomy for sterilization only when there are other, more generalized indications for removal of the uterus,” he wrote. “Recently, I have begun to use hysterectomy in patients with severe mental retardation.”
He said the procedure was justified because it could provide “significant hygienic benefit to these severely handicapped individuals.”
By the late 1970s, Foster stopped doing the procedures as medical opinion changed on the propriety of removing healthy uteri from mentally retarded women, according to the senior administration official.
“Foster, along with the mainstream of the medical community, no longer accepted that sterilization of mentally retarded women by hysterectomy was appropriate,” the official said.
Just how many such operations Foster performed on handicapped women was unclear. But the Southern Medical Journal article notes that Foster did a total of six sterilizations on all women between 1963 and 1973. It does not say how many of those were mentally handicapped women.
At the time, Foster was a gynecologist at a Tuskegee, Ala., hospital.
Most of his article in the medical journal was devoted to raising concerns about unnecessary hysterectomies on women with healthy uteri.