By GARDINER HARRIS
Published: July 13, 2007
WASHINGTON, July 12 — President Bush’s nominee for surgeon general told a Senate panel on Thursday that he would resign if asked to put politics over science on an important issue after his predecessor said he had been handcuffed by politics.
The nominee, Dr. James W. Holsinger Jr., testified at his nomination hearing before the Senate health committee that he would support bans on the advertising of prescription drugs and sugary children’s cereals, that high school students should be told that condoms are an appropriate form of birth control and that he was not antigay.
“I can only say that I have a deep appreciation for the essential human dignity of all people, regardless of background or sexual orientation,” Dr. Holsinger said. “Should I be confirmed as surgeon general, I pledge to you to continue that commitment.”
Gay rights advocates have denounced Dr. Holsinger for a 1991 paper he wrote for a church committee that characterized homosexual sex as unnatural and unhealthy. Under pointed questioning on Thursday, Dr. Holsinger said the 1991 paper did not represent his current views, was not intended to be published and was not “an example of my scientific work.”
“I would simply ask that you read the scientific papers that I have published as an example of my scientific work,” Dr. Holsinger said.
The hearing came two days after former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona told a House committee that Bush administration officials had repeatedly tried to weaken or suppress important public health reports because of political considerations.
Again and again, senators asked Dr. Holsinger whether he could stand up to similar political pressure. Indeed, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the committee, began the hearing by announcing that he would soon introduce legislation to give the surgeon general’s office greater political independence.
Senator Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont, told Dr. Holsinger that what had “happened to Dr. Carmona sounds more like what would happen frankly under Stalinist Russia.”
Dr. Holsinger assured the senators that he would not sacrifice his principles.
“If I were faced with a situation that I felt I could not in good conscience do, I think I have a clear response to that. I would resign,” he said.
If confirmed, Dr. Holsinger said that his top three priorities would be tackling childhood obesity, “making America a tobacco-free nation” and improving the ability of the Public Health Service to respond to emergencies. He said he supported President Bush’s stem cell policy, which prohibits federal financing of some stem cell research.
A difficult moment in the hearing for Dr. Holsinger came when Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, began her questioning. Fifteen years ago, Ms. Mikulski was chairwoman of a Senate committee with oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs, where Dr. Holsinger was the chief medical officer.
“Well, Dr. Holsinger, we meet again,” Ms. Mikulski began. “As I recall those times, we did not have a good time together. You were often indifferent or dismissive of oversight.”
She accused him of mishandling a sexual harassment scandal at an Atlanta veterans’ hospital. Dr. Holsinger, the father of four adult daughters, countered, “I care greatly about issues of women’s health.”
From 1994 to 2003, Dr. Holsinger served as chancellor of the medical center at the University of Kentucky and then as the state’s health secretary until 2005. His tenure in those jobs won praise from state lawmakers in both parties and advocates for the mentally ill, disabled and elderly.
As the state’s top health official, he fought for more accessible and flexible care and pushed to raise taxes on cigarettes and limit junk food in schools.
Dr. Holsinger told the panel that “we need to have every American covered for health care.”
“We have spent years Band-Aiding our system,” Dr. Holsinger said. He did not offer an opinion about how to fix the system.
Because of the August recess, the committee is unlikely to vote on Dr. Holsinger’s nomination until September. Republicans on the panel expressed support for the nomination.
Dr. Holsinger’s wife, three of his four daughters and his 98-year-old mother were in the audience during the hearing. His mother, Ruth R. Holsinger, said after the hearing that “for many years, I was father and mother to my child” while her husband fought in World War II and the Korean War. She said she was pleased by his testimony, although she admitted that she could not hear it all.
“I see my son standing tall like his dad,” she said.
Fausto Intilla's web site: www.oloscience.com