Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Deja Vu: One More Time

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Deja Vu: One More Time

Article excerpt

Deja Vu: One More Time.

by Mary-Christine Phillip

WASHINGTON -- The skirmish over abortion in selecting a new surgeon general raises anew the danger that President Clinton will further alienate the women and minorities who make up large segments of the people who put him into office.

While the president is trying to make good on his pledge to build the most diverse administration in history, just past the halfway mark into his term, he cannot seem to brush off the image of fumbling, of either having to abandon or stoutly defend some of his minority nominees.

Caught in the cross-fire this time is Henry Foster, M.D., a gynecologist tapped to replace the outspoken Joycelyn Elders, who was unceremoniously ousted by Clinton for talking about masturbation. Before his nomination to be the nation's top doctor, Foster, who had served as dean and acting president of Meharry Medical College in Tennessee -- home state of Vice-President Albert Gore -- was an educator and doctor with an "impeccable record."

Meharry, founded in 1876, is one of four historically Black institutions that train doctors and one of 117 Black institutions inaugurated during the nation's unpalatable past, when slavery, segregation and Jim Crow injustice were lessons of the day.

The surgeon general's post has fallen into the eye of a policy storm in recent years, starting with C. Everett Koop. Foster seems to be following that tradition. The fact that he is being demonized for performing abortions -- from fewer than a dozen as he first said, to the 700 as claimed by abortion foes and 39 by his own more-recent count -- shows how divisive the issue is.

Says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania: "We have never, as a society, settled the abortion question. It has been settled by court battles in front of judges. We have never had a legislative resolution, we have never had a political resolution and without that, it remains an open wound.

"It is core values. It plays into a bunch of agendas about rich versus poor, about holding women responsible for sexuality in ways men are not held responsible. And at the root there is a fundamental disagreement about the moral status of the fetus, about sexuality and responsibility. Abortion continues to be a divisive issue, more than race, more than education, more than drugs. It divides people more emotionally."

The confusion over the number of abortions Foster did allows detractors to question his credibility. No one has questioned his qualifications, however. The dissension over abortion is heightened by Foster's association with Planned Parenthood, and revelations that he performed hysterectomies on retarded women for "sterilization and hygienic" reasons in the 1970s.

The article in which Foster made the disclosure lists 485 hysterectomies performed from 1963 to 1973 at John Andrew Memorial Hospital in Tuskeegee, AL. That procedure was common medical practice at the time. In his writings he also stated that pregnant women with sickle cell anemia -- which disproportionately affects Blacks -- should be informed that abortion is an option.

When Foster was at Tuskegee University, many of his patients were the young, Black women on campus. For many, he provided the first-ever gynecological consultation, and former students have pleasant memories of him.

Despite national unease, abortions they continue. In 1992 alone, 1.52 million abortions were performed. Of the women reporting abortions that year, 21.1 percent were 19-year-olds; 34.6 percent were in the 20-24 age bracket; and 45.3 percent were 25-year-olds. Some 62.9 percent of the women were whites, compared to 33.3 percent of African Americans.

Associates say when Clinton asked Foster to fill the mostly ceremonial position of surgeon general, neither man had an inkling they would be sucked into the abortion debate, which has grown so contentious that doctors who perform abortions have been killed during protests. …

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