Elders Is an Insult to People of Faith

PATRICK RILEY

July 28, 1993|By PATRICK RILEY

President Clinton has thrown all the clout at his command behind his nominee for surgeon general, Dr. Joycelyn Elders. His most pressing reason has nothing to do with Dr. Elders -- a personal friend -- or her fitness for the job. Mr. Clinton simply cannot abandon another black nominee after the Lani Guinier fiasco.

But unlike Ms. Guinier, whose radical political solutions to racial problems had to be ferreted out of recondite law reviews, Dr. Elders broadcasts her hair-raising ideas. She has declared: ''The surgeon general really does have a bully pulpit, you know, and I'll use it.''

Moreover, Dr. Elders' record as head of the Department of Health in Arkansas is a resounding flop. The statistics are utterly damning, and our president well knows it. Why he would nominate her to be surgeon general of the United States remains a deep and perhaps insoluble mystery.

Until her nomination, Dr. Elders' claim to notoriety rested on her aggressive promotion of condoms among schoolchildren. She told USA Today, ''Well, we're not going to put them on their lunch trays, but. . .''

Condoms, in the Elders scheme of things, are a realistic if regrettable way to avoid teen-age pregnancy (''a deadly disease'' in the Elders lexicon) and to avoid venereal disease and AIDS (deadly in any lexicon).

But it hasn't worked out that way. Before Dr. Elders took office, teen pregnancies in Arkansas had been on their way down, declining 10 percent between 1980 and 1985. After she took over, with condoms everywhere but on lunch trays, teen-age pregnancies in Arkansas hit a 10-year high and kept going up -- a 13 percent rise since 1985.

And venereal disease? Recent figures from the Arkansas Department of Health show that syphilis, on the decline in the mid-'80s, is on the upswing again. Since 1989 alone, syphilis rates doubled, then climbed another 30 percent.

One definition of a fanatic is someone who redoubles all efforts when the ideas behind them prove worthless. Dr. Elders, bleeding from the beating she and her pet ideas have taken, forges resolutely on. She turned a blind eye to a Food and Drug Administration report that the condoms distributed in Arkansas by the millions (literally) were defective. Although they failed at a rate more than 10 times higher than the FDA considered acceptable, although Dr. Elders' stated purpose in distributing them was to cut down teen-age pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, she refused to alert the public to this danger. Some director of public health!

At the same time, Dr. Elders has treated her opponents with open contempt, not to say calumny. Those who oppose abortion are ''very religious non-Christians'' who ''love little babies as long as they're in somebody else's uterus,'' and who suffer from ''slavemaster mentalities.''

In an address in the Capitol in Little Rock, Dr. Elders declared: ''Look who's fighting the pro-choice movement: a celibate male-dominated church.'' This pretty well identified the church she was complaining about.

I hope to be forgiven for speculating that Dr. Elders' wild accusations would have raised a storm in the political arena and in the media had her targets been other minorities. But Christians don't count. Catholics aren't anointed victims. Media bias against the Catholic Church and its teachings has been documented in a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Now, I have no window into Dr. Elders' soul. But there is a historic hostility between traditional religious respect for human life and its source, namely sex, and pagan disregard for both.

That historic hostility is found most graphically in the book of Prophets in the Bible, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who denounced the sexual profligacy of the tribes surrounding Israel, and their ritual slaughter of children. It is found also at the very first council of the Christian church, in Jerusalem, when Peter and Paul debated whether pagan converts to the new faith were to be bound by Mosaic Law. The solution was starkly simple: New Christians were to be distinguished from the pagans they lived among in three ways only: They were to avoid anything savoring of false worship; they were to show their respect for life, even by avoiding meat that still held blood; and they were to avoid sexual misbehavior.

So Christians and Jews have history on their side when they see the assault on sexual mores and on the life of children as an assault on their religious beliefs. This is as good a reason as any for opposing Dr. Joycelyn Elders.

Patrick Riley teaches philosophy at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

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