Washington (AFP) July 15, 2007
Testimony from President George W. Bush's former surgeon general last week has fueled charges that his administration has trumped science in favor of its political and religious ideologies. The administration has been at loggerheads with scientists since it came to power in 2001 on issues ranging from stem cell research to global warming and the theory of evolution.
It stood accused again of putting ideology over science this week after the administration's former surgeon general charged that it deliberately quashed or downplayed several important health reports for political reasons.
Dr Richard Carmona, a Bush appointee who held the post as the country's chief health educator from 2002 to 2006, told a Congressional committee Tuesday that he was not authorized to discuss certain sensitive subjects in public.
They included embryonic stem-cell research, whose federal funding Bush restricted in 2001, the controversial morning-after pill and sex education.
Carmona admitted to lawmakers that when he had taken up his post he had been "still quite politically naive" but he was "astounded" by the "partisanship and political manipulation" he witnessed.
Health department spokesman Bill Hall rejected Carmona's accusations, saying: "It has always been this administration's position that public health policy should be rooted in sound science."
Michael Halpern, a member of the influential Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, said scientists believe the Bush administration is the "worst" ever in terms of political interference and censure.
"Information inconvenient to the administration's priorities is sidelined," Halpern told AFP.
In 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists organized a petition signed by more than 12,000 scientists, including 50 Nobel prize winners and former senior science advisers to several US presidents, to denounce political interference by the Bush administration.
"Scientists believe that political interference is unacceptable," the petition said.
"If our policy makers are going to make fully informed decisions about our health, safety, and environment, they need access to independent science," it said. "Reforms can and should be put in place to insulate science from politics."
The petition has apparently had little impact on the White House.
In 2006, NASA's top climate expert, James Hansen, accused the administration in a New York Times interview of pressuring him to censure his research on global warming, notably during the 2004 presidential campaign.
His charges were confirmed by other staffers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, leading Democrats as well as Bush's own Republicans in Congress to call for greater scientific transparency in the agency.
A NASA press official, George Deutsch, who was close to Bush's reelection campaign, was forced to resign after being accused by Hansen for barring journalists from interviewing him.
In his book "The Assault on Reason," former vice president Al Gore said that Deutsch, who has no scientific education or university diplomat, wrote a memo to scientists saying that the Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is an opinion."
"This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue," Deutsch wrote, according to Gore, the former Democratic candidate who lost the 2000 election to Bush.
Senators grilled Holsinger on his willingness to deliver scientifically based health advice without regard to ideology.
Carmona told House lawmakers Tuesday that he was edited by the White House on a wide range of issues, including prison mental healthcare, contraception and secondhand smoke. Democrats were incensed by the testimony and Thursday introduced legislation designed to immunize the surgeon general's office from political influence.
"The Office of the Surgeon General has become a morass of shameful political manipulation and distortion of science," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Holsinger told senators he would discuss scientific facts with political operatives if they tried to color his public statements about medicine and health.
"Quite candidly, if I were unable to do that and I were being overridden, if necessary, I would resign," he said.
While that response seemed to please some of the administration's critics, Holsinger's nomination is still uncertain, mainly because of his writings on homosexuality.
Holsinger's nomination has run into difficulty because of a 1991 paper he wrote labeling male homosexuality as pathological. The paper, written for the United Methodist Church's judicial council, focuses on physical injuries that can result when men have sex with men.
Gay-rights groups have attacked Holsinger for basing the review on a narrow selection of scientific papers and for its implication that homosexual sex is, by its nature, unhealthy.
They also note that the paper makes no mention of dangers to women who engage in anal sex.
"This misuse of science gravely concerns me," Kennedy said during the hearings. "We need someone who can unite Americans and be trusted by all," he said.
Holsinger defended the paper as a non-scientific review for a religious organization. He also strived to assure lawmakers that he was not bigoted against gay persons.
"I feel it's part of my role as a physician to broker healthcare for all individuals," he said. "For a physician, it makes no difference what a person's personal characteristics are. We want to take care of him."
The American Public Health Association released a letter earlier this week saying it opposes Holsinger's nomination.
"While we have no doubt that Holsinger has made positive contributions throughout his medical and public health career, we believe his previously expressed views on sexuality are inconsistent with mainstream medicine and public health practice," Georges Benjamin, the group's executive director, wrote in a letter to Congress.
Holsinger, who is from Kentucky, served as the chief medical director of the Veterans Administration and was briefly Kentucky's top government health official. He was also chancellor of the University of Kentucky Medical Center from 1994 to 2003.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Republican leader, said, "There can be no debate on the breadth or depth of Holsinger's experience in medicine and public health."
Holsinger told lawmakers his top priorities as surgeon general would include curbing smoking and combating childhood obesity.
He also said he favors boosting the capacity of the U.S. Public Health Service to respond to natural disasters and terrorist attacks. He said he favors higher cigarette taxes as a way to cut down on smoking, a view not necessarily popular in tobacco-growing Kentucky.
On Thursday, Holsinger appeared to surprise lawmakers when he said he backs laws banning consumer advertising of prescription drugs as a way to help curb medical costs.
"It puts an unconscionable pressure on America's physicians to prescribe the blue pill or the pink pill or whatever the pill of the month might be," he said.
Holsinger also said he supports White House limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
The committee that held the hearing is expected to vote on Holsinger's nomination sometime this summer.
Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill. announced before Thursday's hearing they will oppose Holsinger's nomination. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., another HELP Committee member, announced shortly after the hearing that he would also oppose Holsinger.
Source: United Press International
Source: Agence France-Presse
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