President Bush’s first surgeon general testified Tuesday that his speeches were censored to match administration political positions and that he was prevented from giving the public accurate scientific information on issues such as stem cell research and teen pregnancy prevention.
“Anything that doesn’t fit into the political appointees’ ideological, theological or political agenda is ignored, marginalized or simply buried,” Dr. Richard H. Carmona, who was surgeon general from 2002 to 2006, told a congressional committee. “The job of surgeon general is to be the doctor of the nation -- not the doctor of a political party.”
Early in the administration, when the issue of federal funding for stem cell research arose, Carmona said, he felt he could play an educational role by discussing the latest scientific research. Instead, he said, he was told to “stand down” because the White House already had made a decision to limit stem cell studies. He said administration appointees who reviewed his speech texts deleted references to stem cells.
Carmona’s remarks were the latest in a series of complaints from government scientists about what they say are administration efforts to control -- and sometimes distort -- scientific evidence in order to support policy decisions.
NASA scientists have complained, for example, of political pressure to tone down warnings about global warming. Environmental Protection Agency officials have complained that technical information on such subjects as power plant emissions and oil drilling have been ignored.
Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, recently dissented from the administration’s position by saying its restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research were holding back progress and should be lifted.
Scientists outside the government also have complained about what some call the administration’s “war on science.”
In the case of the surgeon general, Carmona told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, “the reality is that the nation’s doctor has been marginalized and relegated to a position with no independent budget, and with supervisors who are political appointees with partisan agendas.”
His testimony drew a pointed rebuke from the White House. Officials suggested that any breakdown in communicating health information to the public was ultimately a failure on his part. “Dr. Carmona was given the authority and had the obligation to be the leading voice for the health of all Americans,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
“It’s disappointing to us if he failed to use his position to the fullest extent in advocating for policies he thought were in the best interests of the nation. We believe Dr. Carmona received the support necessary to carry out his mission,” Fratto said.
Carmona served his four-year term as surgeon general and was not reappointed. A trauma surgeon from Arizona with no previous experience in a high-level Washington post, he told the committee he had taken the job believing he could be an unbiased public health educator.
But he said, “I was blocked at every turn.”
In an interview, Carmona said he thought about quitting many times, but added: “You also realize that if you quit, who else is going to do this job?”
One of his major accomplishments as surgeon general was a landmark report on the dangers of secondhand smoke. Its release was delayed for political reasons, he said. Other reports on mental health, emergency preparedness and global health issues were blocked, he added.
Carmona said he also ran afoul of politics on teen pregnancy prevention. Although the administration emphasizes abstinence from sexual relations, Carmona said he believed a variety of approaches was needed, including contraception for teens who are sexually active.
The administration “did not want to hear the science ... but wanted to preach abstinence, which I felt was scientifically incorrect,” Carmona testified.
On the issue of stem cell research, Carmona said he found much of the discussion within the government “devoid of science.”
Embryonic stem cells can be grown into any type of cell in the body, and many scientists see in them the promise of a cure for diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes. But producing the cells involves the destruction of human embryos -- which religious conservatives and others find morally objectionable.
Bush has limited federal funding for stem cell research and blocked attempts by Congress to lift the restriction.
Carmona testified alongside former Surgeons General C. Everett Koop and David Satcher, who served in the Reagan and Clinton administrations, respectively. They also told the committee that they had faced political interference -- particularly on morally charged issues such as sexuality or drug use.
Carmona said their testimony showed that political interference was “a systemic problem,” but he also said several former surgeons general told him they had never seen it rise to the levels he described.
“The surgeon general has to be independent if the surgeon general is going to have any credibility,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the oversight committee.
Some Republican committee members sought other explanations for Carmona’s frustration. They suggested that Carmona, who worked his way up from humble origins and was decorated for combat service in Vietnam, simply wasn’t cut out for the Washington insider’s game of bureaucratic turf battles.
Though called the nation’s top doctor, the surgeon general actually reports to an assistant secretary at the Health and Human Services Department.
The House hearing occurred two days before a Senate panel meets to consider the nomination of Carmona’s replacement, a Kentucky cardiologist who already has become a political lightning rod.
As a prominent lay member of the United Methodist Church, Dr. James W. Holsinger Jr. strongly opposed liberalizing church policies toward gays. His stance, including his views in a paper he wrote on human anatomy and homosexuality, has drawn strong opposition from major gay and lesbian organizations.
Several prominent Democratic senators have expressed reservations about Holsinger, raising questions of whether he can be confirmed.