The White House played down the significance Saturday of revelations that President Clinton’s nominee for surgeon general had performed hysterectomies to sterilize some severely retarded women in the 1960s and 1970s.
White House press secretary Mike McCurry said the information was available to administration officials before Clinton’s selection of Dr. Henry Foster. He said Foster, in scholarly writings, had “eloquently” explained his conduct in the context of medical thinking for that time.
“We wanted to know more about the circumstances of this, what the medical practices were at the time,” McCurry said. “We looked into the matter.”
Administration officials said Foster, along with the mainstream medical community, no longer considers sterilization of retarded women by hysterectomy to be appropriate.
“Should senators wish to question him about these matters, he will be in a good position to address them,” McCurry said.
The administration volunteered the names of prominent doctors who said it had been accepted medical practice decades ago to perform hysterectomies on severely retarded women for hygienic reasons and for sterilization.
“There have been many changes over that 25 to 30 years in the care of all patients,” said Dr. George Wilbanks, chairman of the Rush Memorial Medical College in Chicago and president-elect of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “He’s changed with the times.”
The administration is promising to push ahead with Foster’s nomination despite growing opposition from anti-abortion forces upset that he performed 39 abortions during his decades as a obstetrician-gynecologist. Some senators also have raised concern about Foster’s credibility because of shifting accounts of how many abortions he performed.
Foster, speaking out on his own behalf in recent days, has defended a woman’s right to an abortion and stressed that most of the abortions he performed were in cases of rape, incest or medical necessity. He added that his life’s work has been to discourage young people from becoming parents too soon.
Foster’s nomination has not been formally submitted to the Senate because an FBI background check has not been completed. Attorney General Janet Reno declined to comment Saturday on the status of the FBI review but called Foster’s credentials “very impressive.”