Evoking recollections of his Southern roots and early years in medicine, beleaguered surgeon general nominee Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. told a Senate committee on Tuesday he had made an “honest mistake” in understating the number of abortions he had performed as a physician and insisting: “There was never any intent to deceive.”
“I had no reason to do so,” he said during the opening moments of his confirmation hearings before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.
“First of all, I am a doctor who delivers babies,” Foster said. “My life’s work has been devoted to bringing healthy lives into this world and trying to assure that every child born is a wanted child.”
In insisting he had not deliberately underestimated the number of abortions he has performed during his nearly 40-year career, Foster said that in the days following his nomination, he had said he had done fewer than a dozen. Later, he said he had not checked his records carefully and acknowledged that the correct figure was more than three times the original number.
The hearing before the Republican-dominated committee climaxes a tumultuous three-month confirmation marathon for Foster and for President Clinton, who has vowed to “go to the mat” for the Nashville, Tenn., obstetrician/gynecologist and educator. Foster’s nomination has been caught between the polarizing forces of abortion rights and abortion foes, although most of the rhetoric has focused on Foster’s truthfulness - or lack of it.
Foster, 61, founder of a Nashville program for teenagers called “I Have a Future,” has said he wants to focus on combating teen pregnancy.
While Foster’s chances with the committee remain uncertain, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., has threatened to keep the nomination from reaching the Senate floor, and Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, has vowed to filibuster it if it does. Dole, who is vying with Gramm for the GOP presidential nomination, has predicted the nomination will die in committee.
Its survival at that level hinges on three GOP senators who remain undecided: Sens. Bill Frist, a fellow physician and Tennessean; Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, who chairs the committee; and Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who frequently votes with the Democrats.
All three indicated Tuesday they would base their decisions on Foster’s professional credentials and his record and would not allow the nomination to rest on the inflammatory issue of abortion.
Kassebaum and Jeffords support abortion rights, while Frist personally opposes abortion, although he deems it medically acceptable under certain circumstances.
Foster “has been made a pawn in our abortion debates,” Kassebaum said. “I believe he deserves to be judged on his whole record. … Abortion is certainly part of this record and should be examined, but it is only one part of the whole record.”
Frist, a heart and lung surgeon, agreed that the hearing is not “the time or place to revisit our national policy on abortion.” Frist praised Foster’s “outstanding work” in his home state and said the purpose of the scrutiny is not to dredge up “every mistake or imperfection.”
In a brief interview, Frist said his own review of the material submitted to the committee in advance showed “no smoking guns” about Foster. Nevertheless, he said his vote “would depend on how the hearing goes.”
White House press secretary Mike McCurry said he is upbeat about Foster’s presentation and pleased with the comments of Kassebaum and Frist. Of the possible outcome, McCurry said: “I am hopeful; I am also realistic.”