Elders’ Dogma Renders Her Unfit for Office : A surgeon general needs to build consensus, not attack and smear opponents.

<i> Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is secretary of the Senate Republican Conference. </i>

During my years in Congress, I have had the opportunity to meet and know many people of great achievement. Some were cut out for government service, some were not. There is no question that Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the President’s nominee for surgeon general, is a person of great personal achievement. I am impressed with her background, the struggle she has had and the position she has reached. The daughter of sharecroppers, Elders excelled in college and medical school and became head of the Arkansas Health Department.

The opposition on Capitol Hill to her nomination in no way diminishes her life achievements. It is her actions and her record as a public servant that have convinced me that she is wrong for the job.

Elders’ supporters point to her many virtues. One “virtue” that has been spoken of quite a lot is her “frankness,” “straightforwardness,” “plain-speaking” or whatever. These qualities are admirable, especially in a doctor. You wouldn’t want your doctor hemming and hawing about whether you have a terminal disease. But Elders has displayed in many of her public comments not “plain-speaking” but a judgmental and intolerant attitude. In our fractured society, this is not what we need from a public official. Elders sometimes has been blinded by her own agenda.

One area where she has not been open to other viewpoints is her adamant pursuit of condom distribution and explicit sex education among very young children. Elders told the Arkansas Gazette in 1988 that an “integral part of a comprehensive school-based health clinic today is that we have sexuality education beginning in kindergarten.” The Gazette also reported parents’ concern that the school clinics might “encourage sexual activity and abortions and supersede parental control.”

Against the wishes of the Arkansas Legislature--the representatives of citizens and parents--Elders began using federal funds for condom distribution in school-based clinics when state funds were disallowed. Like the Terminator, she couldn’t be stopped from pursuing her agenda. Many parents in Arkansas probably felt that such education was better done in the home. Elders, in her infinite wisdom, felt otherwise.


In defense of her program to put a condom in every kid’s pocket, Elders has used every attack at her disposal, including racial allusions, to neutralize her oppo nents. She lashed out at her critics as “very religious non-Christians” with “slave-master mentalities.” Elders criticized Medicaid policies that do not pay for abortions on demand, saying the government will “pay for you to have another good, healthy slave, but won’t pay for you to use your brain and make good choices for yourself.” Destructive and divisive rhetoric like this does not build consensus, something a surgeon general must do to be successful.

Elders’ devotion to her dogma puts the lives of the children she says she cares about in danger. Elders engaged in a cover-up when it was discovered during the heat of the presidential campaign that leaky condoms were distributed by public-health and school clinics in Arkansas. The defective condoms had a failure rate 10 times that which is allowed by the Food and Drug Administration. Elders’ department purchased more than 1 million of these condoms. She never told the young people using them that the condoms were faulty, that they could be risking pregnancy or AIDS. It is the duty of a state health official to inform citizens about health risks, not to create additional health risks.

In her testimony before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, Elders was asked how she would feel as a mother if some public official refused to tell her that her sons might be exposed to sexually transmitted diseases because of faulty condoms provided by public officials. “The decisions I make as a mother, the decisions, you know, that I make as a private citizen and the decisions that I make as a public-health official are sometimes different,” she said. This is chilling.

Elders’ dogmatism has caused her to attack the Catholic Church, saying during a 1992 rally that the church was silent on slavery, the Holocaust and women’s suffrage. This is untrue. Elders has yet to fully renounce her remarks, giving only half-hearted apologies. I am not Catholic, but such an attack is baseless, indefensible and bigoted. Elders’ attack on the faith of millions is disturbing and divisive.

There are many more instances of Elders’ judgmental, insensitive attitude. It is incredible that such a talented person would express thoughts or act in such a narrow-minded way. One of President Clinton’s campaign promises was that he would bring the country together. Elders as surgeon general is not a good start.