AMA editor fired over an article backing Clinton definition of sex

Official claims timing of piece inappropriately put group in political debate

January 16, 1999|By BOSTON GLOBE

The American Medical Association has fired its top-ranking editor for publishing an article based on a 1991 survey in which a substantial majority of college students agreed with President Clinton's controversial contention that oral-genital contact does not constitute "having sex."

Running the article in the Journal of the American Medical Association just as Clinton's Senate impeachment trial is getting under way was "inappropriately and inexcusably interjecting JAMA into a major political debate that has nothing to do with science or medicine," AMA Executive Vice President E. Ratcliffe Anderson said during a press conference yesterday. "This is unacceptable."

Supporters of the editor, Dr. George D. Lundberg, agreed that yesterday's firing was all about politics -- but they said the AMA's buttoned-down leadership was to blame.

"I read it simply as the AMA wanting the Republicans to do better than the Democrats," said Dr. Tom Delbanco, a professor at Harvard Medical School who edits the monthly Clinical Crossroads series in JAMA. "I find it disgusting."

The JAMA article in question grew out of a 1991 survey of 599 students about sexual behavior. Fifty-nine percent of the students said that oral-genital contact alone did not qualify as sex, which is the same stance Clinton took during his grand jury testimony.

It was the timing of the study, that generated yesterday's firestorm.

Anderson said there was "some acceleration" of the normal review process to get the article into next week's JAMA, which ensured word of its impending release would get out to the media this week. "I don't question the material in there," he said. "But I do very clearly question the judgment of publishing that material right in the middle of the congressional proceedings."

Other AMA officials, however, said the 2 1/2 months it took to get the piece into print was standard at JAMA, considered one of the two or three leading medical-scientific publications in the world.

Reached at his home in Chicago, Lundberg, 65, declined to comment on his firing or the way the sex study was handled. But the study's authors insisted that the review at JAMA was the same as at other journals where they have published survey findings.

The only speeding up this time was that the planned publication date of Feb. 2 was moved up two weeks when it was found there was room in the earlier edition, said June Machover Reinisch, one of the authors and director emerita of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University, which conducted the student survey.

Dr. Marcia Angell, executive editor of the rival New England Journal of Medicine, said:

"I find it hard to believe that George Lundberg, a very successful editor of JAMA for 17 years, would be fired for such a reason. George has really done a lot for JAMA. He has put it on the map as far as I'm concerned. This is unfortunate for both JAMA and the AMA."

Seasoned AMA watchers said last-minute efforts were made by Lundberg's supporters to save his job, but they were doomed by the conservative slate of doctors who run the organization, led by Anderson, who took over last year.

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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