New surgeon general approved despite remarks on guns, contraception

Surgeon general's office has been a powerful bully pulpit, for those willing to use it

Overruling the objections of gun-rights advocates, the U.S. Senate on Monday confirmed Dr. Vivek Murthy, a British-born, American-educated internal medicine specialist, to become the 19th surgeon general of the United States.

The 51-43 vote makes Murthy, a 37-year-old graduate of Harvard University and Yale University Medical School, the third-youngest physician to lead the U.S. Public Health Service's 6,800 commissioned officers.

Murthy founded Doctors for America, a national physicians group that worked to pass the Affordable Healthcare Act, and has worked to promote HIV/AIDS education both in the United States and India. At Brigham & Womens Hospital in Boston, his research has focused on improving the quality of clinical trials, and expanding the participation of women and minorities in biomedical research. 

He has declared obesity "the defining public health challenge of our time," and, more controversially, supported an assault weapons ban and asserted that "guns are a healthcare issue."

The latter position, tweeted by Murthy in October 2012, drew condemnation from conservatives in Congress, whose grumbling prompted Senate Democrats to delay action on his nomination until after the November elections. As a result, the nation's top doctor's office has remained empty for 17 months.

"Tired of politicians playing politics w/ guns, putting lives at risk b/c they're scared of NRA. Guns are a health care issue," Dr. Murthy tweeted on Oct. 12, 2012.

Murthy also drew ire from conservatives for a tweet in which he lauded the Affordable Care Act for giving women "choice and access to contraception," adding, "what's wrong with choice?"

When queried about his position on contraception by Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi last February, Murthy said it was "informed by science," and added that when women have access to contraception, mothers are healthier.

In Senate confirmation hearings last February, Murthy said that, if confirmed, he would focus on childhood obesity, vaccinating children and driving down tobacco use in the United States. He called disease prevention "an issue I'm deeply passionate about."

In the end, the Senate vote on Murthy proceeded because new Senate rules require only a simple majority of lawmakers to shut down a filibuster over presidential nominations, with the exception of Supreme Court picks.

The American Public Health Assn. on Monday hailed Murthy's confirmation, calling it "a critical step in the right direction that will lead to more positive health outcomes."

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) on Monday assailed the "handful of conservative political activists" whose opposition to Murthy left the office of surgeon general empty in the midst of widespread fear over the Ebola virus' spread to the U.S.

"Today’s vote was a proud stand against the fear and confusion propagated by these extreme groups and their allies in Congress," said Murphy. "No one should be surprised that the individuals nominated by President Obama to serve in his administration share many of his views," he added. "The surprise is that some chose to put their political agenda ahead of public safety and public health in blocking Dr. Murthy’s nomination."

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