Surgeon general nominee sees herself as lightning rod Confirmation hearing tomorrow

July 15, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- Dr. Joycelyn Elders, President Clinton's nominee for surgeon general, this week proudly wore the token of her fiery battle to change public policy on sex -- a lapel pin emblazoned with a tiny lightning bolt.

"I still don't mind being the lightning rod," Dr. Elders said. "But I've got to know the thunder is behind me."

While other nominees have been disqualified by their controversial pasts, the Clinton administration promises to stand behind Dr. Elders as she heads for a Senate confirmation hearing, scheduled for tomorrow, that is a critical step on the way to becoming the nation's top doctor.

Because of her sharp tongue and strong views, however, the passage for Dr. Elders, 59, may be stormy.

In her six years as public health director in Arkansas, she has overseen the expansion of school sex education and family planning programs. She has spoken out for abortion rights and the need for publicly funded family planning for poor women. While her supporters view her work as enlightened, she has infuriated conservative groups.

"Dr. Elders' bloodstained ideas must not touch our nation's children," said Andrea Sheldon, of the Traditional Values Coalition.

The surgeon general serves as health adviser to the nation. But members of conservative groups don't want Dr. Elders' advice, or her policies, which they view as radical.

She has said repeatedly that she supports teaching sexual abstinence

to children and that she wishes abortion were unnecessary. But at the same time, she believes public programs should do more to address the complexities of sexual life.

Dr. Elders' views on subjects such as early childhood sex education and promotion of condom use have been compared to those of the Reagan-appointed Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. But her style is less conciliatory.

In words that seem to invite rage, Dr. Elders dismisses her conservative critics, especially those who oppose abortion rights.

Dr. Elders' detractors are turning some of her statements into their own rallying cries.

For example, a 1992 Dr. Elders' comment comparing the need for sex education to the need for driver's education has been widely circulated by the Concerned Women for America.

"We taught them what to do in the front seat," Dr. Elders was reported as saying in an Arkansas paper. "Now it's time to teach them what to do in the back seat."

Janet Parshall of Concerned Women reacted this way: "Has this appointee never thought to teach teen-agers to stay in the front seat with their seat belts on?"

In the newspaper interview, Dr. Elders was using the automobile analogy to illustrate the urgency of AIDS education, not the need for children to learn how to have sex.

In an effort to show she is not qualified for the surgeon general post, detractors cite the climbing teen pregnancy and syphilis rates in Arkansas. Supporters say these increases are tied to larger national trends. They say under Dr. Elders leadership, Arkansas has fared better than some other states.

If confirmed, Dr. Elders would be coming to office at a time when teen-age pregnancy rates in the United States are higher than in any other industrialized nation in the world. The process of sex education must start earlier, Dr. Elders says. High school is too late to begin to discuss sex with young people.

Her critics are furious about the kindergarten through 12th-grade health education program now mandated in Arkansas because of Dr. Elders. Her supporters stress that the program also encompasses hygiene, substance abuse and self-esteem.

[In an unrelated matter, Dr. Elders' husband told the Associated Press last night that he did not pay Social Security or income taxes for a nurse he hired to care for his 97-year-old mother. Oliver Elders said his wife was not responsible for handling his mother's affairs and that he hoped his error would not provide fuel for critics' efforts to derail her nomination.]

["I should have paid them, I didn't pay them and [I'm] going to," Oliver Elders said last night.]

[Problems with employees' Social Security payments stopped some earlier Clinton nominations.]

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