The White House angrily defended Sunday its nomination of Dr. Henry Foster Jr. as U.S. surgeon general and sought to paint his critics as right-wing extremists, even as it coped with new questions about Foster having performed a handful of hysterectomies on severely mentally retarded women more than two decades ago.
With some Republicans vowing to oppose the nomination and many Democrats openly contemptuous of initial missteps by the Clinton administration in explaining how many abortions Foster had performed, the White House unleashed its most vigorous support yet and prepared to escort Foster to courtesy calls on Capitol Hill today.
In a 1976 medical journal article sent to senators by the White House late last week and made public over the weekend, Foster wrote that he sometimes performed hysterectomies to sterilize or alleviate menstrual bleeding in severely retarded women.
Several doctors and medical ethicists said the practice, while controversial, was not uncommon at the time, and top officials said Foster since had changed his views.
Sunday, the White House chief of staff, Leon Panetta, said President Clinton is committed to fighting for the nomination, which Panetta insisted is under attack from “the extreme right.”
After watching a videotape of complaints about the White House from two Democratic senators, Joseph Biden Jr. of Delaware and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, on “Meet the Press,” Panetta reacted sardonically.
“God forbid that we ought to make senators uncomfortable about having to deal with issues like this,” he said.
“They’re basically saying, `God, why do I have to face this kind of controversial issue?’ Because it is a controversial issue. Because dealing with teenage pregnancies is a controversial issue. Because dealing with doctors who have to confront those issues is controversial. So what? That’s what the name of the game is all about.”
But Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, an abortion opponent who is seeking his party’s presidential nomination in 1996, predicted that Foster cannot win Senate confirmation.
“I think that there’s too much dispute about his record,” Gramm said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“I think that in the wake of Dr. Elders, it’s been too divisive a position, and I think people are ready for a Dr. Welby, M.D., who can work with every element of American society.”
Panetta insisted the focus should not be on how many abortions or other procedures Foster has performed or on the White House’s mistakes in vetting him, but rather, on his overall career as an obstetrician and gynecologist who has sought to prevent teenage pregnancy by counseling abstinence.
“This isn’t a vote about White House process; this is a vote about the qualifications of this surgeon general,” he said.
The White House chose Foster, acting director of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., precisely because it hoped that background would enable him to lead a crusade against teenage pregnancy.
But at the same time, the Clinton administration appeared eager Sunday to engage Republicans in an open fight over abortion rights, a debate it had seemed intent on avoiding by initially focusing on the relatively small number of abortions Foster said he had performed.