Questions were raised Friday about whether Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr., President Clinton's beleaguered nominee to be surgeon general, was aware of the notorious Tuskeegee, Ala., study in which illiterate black men suffering from syphilis went untreated for many years.
Foster, then head of obstetrics in a Tuskeegee hospital, was a member of a 10-person local medical society board in Tuskeegee that was briefed on the decades-long study in 1969 by an expert panel convened by the Public Health Service, which sponsored the study.
But Foster and the White House insisted Friday that Foster first learned about the project in 1972, the same year it ended.
"I was outraged in 1972 when, as the president of the Macon County (Ala.) Medical Society, I first learned the facts of the Tuskeegee Syphilis Study," Foster said in a statement released by the White House.
"Had I learned the facts of the study any earlier, I would have been equally outraged then and I would have insisted on appropriate treatment, as I did in 1972," he added.
The new controversy was initiated by Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative organization that has been waging an intense campaign against the Foster nomination.
Bauer, who served as a White House aide during the Ronald Reagan Administration, circulated excerpts from a 1981 book about the research study which claimed that the board had given the Health Service its approval for the work.
But Dr. S. H. Settler, who was secretary of the county medical society at the time, in a statement released by the White House, stressed that the medical society had no jurisdiction over the project and was not asked for its approval or judgment.
"It is my recollection that the subject of treating the participants was not raised at the meeting," he said. He added that he did not recall Foster being present at the session.
White House aide John Podesta said in an interview: "It is clear that extremists in the anti-abortion movement, like Gary Bauer, will seize on this to distort the facts. We are confident that fair people will reject this distortion."
Earlier, Podesta said in a statement: "Dr. Foster has stated unequivocally that he was not informed until 1972 that the federal government was conducting its study of untreated syphilis."
The Tuskegee study was begun in 1932 on 412 illiterate black men who were not treated so that scientists could see what the disease did to their bodies.
Medical ethical doctrines were evolving when revelations were made about the study, provoking national outrage. The public reaction to the case is considered responsible for the establishment of what is regarded today as major medical doctrine, the concept of "informed consent," and protections for research subjects.
Informed consent means full disclosure to patients and research subjects of the risks and benefits of a treatment or experiment. The doctrine was first established in 1974 and was codified into federal law in 1980.
Bauer conceded that the book, "Bad Blood," by James H. Jones, a history professor at the University of Houston, did not say that Foster was present at the meeting but said it was sufficient that Foster was vice president of the board at the time.
"Nothing in the book says Dr. Foster was at the meeting," Bauer told the Associated Press. "We don't have a piece of paper with his name on it. But he was the No. 2 person and there were only 10 people. Our view, however, is that this does fit with a pattern, that if you go look at this and the hysterectomy stuff, Dr. Foster appears to be on what is the wrong side of ethical medicine."
Questions have been raised about a small number of hysterectomies Foster has acknowledged performing on severely mentally disabled women. He has also been under fire for having performed several dozen abortions during his more than 30-year career as an obstetrician-gynecologist.