Surgeon General Elders

September 14, 1993

As the daughter of sharecroppers, Dr. Joycelyn Elders never expected successes to come easily in life. Even so, the delay of nine months between President Clinton's announcement of his intention to appoint her the nation's next surgeon general and her confirmation by the Senate last week was a difficult wait for a woman as focused and forceful as Dr. Elders.

Her willingness to ruffle feathers by blunt talk about social and sexual realities guaranteed that hers would be a high-profile appointment, and that her confirmation would be a lightning rod for those who see partisan politics as the major front in a broad-based cultural conflict. But the opposition never gained enough steam to derail the nomination, and Dr. Elders took office after being confirmed by a comfortable margin.

As the nation's chief medical officer her role is as much educational as practical, and it is one that carries her straight into the political fray. She is certainly not the first surgeon general willing to raise controversy; Dr. C. Everett Koop came into office angering supporters of abortion rights and left an equally outspoken advocate of more forthright talk about AIDS and more forceful action to stop the spread of the disease. Dr. Elders and Dr. Koop come from opposite sides of the abortion issue, but in fact their goals are not far apart at all.

Dr. Elders is not known for judicious remarks -- she once said the nation must get over its "love affair with the fetus." She is unapologetic about her support for sex education in the schools, for distributing condoms to sexually active teen-agers and making the contraceptive Norplant available to drug-using prostitutes. She supports needle-exchange programs for drug users. But all these positions are backed by a fierce belief in old fashioned values like the need for personal responsibility and the value of hard work. Indeed, her life itself is an inspiring tribute to those virtues.

Dr. Elders' habit of plain talk will continue to stir controversy. But that's exactly what this country needs -- someone who can force Americans to look squarely at situations they would rather ignore. This country is plagued by epidemics of children having children, of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and of rampant, destructive drug use. Dr. Elders is determined to see that these issues get the honest debate and principled, realistic action they deserve. True, the process is political and, inevitably, controversial. But no less than the health of the nation is at stake.

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