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National NOW Times >> August 1995 >> Article

Foster Falls to Cuthroat Politics

by Sandy Alexander, NOW Intern

To win favor among conservative groups like the Christian Coalition, Republican presidential hopefuls Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas successfully blocked confirmation of U.S. Surgeon General nominee Dr. Henry Foster.

Dr. Foster, President Clinton's nominee to fill the post left vacant by the political demise of Dr. Jocelyn Elders, immediately faced attacks motivated by his performance of legal abortions as a part of his obstetrics practice. The National Right to Life Committee urged senators to support a filibuster in what they called a key "pro-life" vote, while officials of the so-called Christian Coalition said they would base their support of Republican presidential candidates on their actions in the Foster situation.

Supporters, including NOW, asserted that abortion is a constitutionally protected procedure that should not be used as grounds for disqualifying a doctor from public office. NOW President Patricia Ireland said, "If Dr. Foster had not performed any abortions during his 38-year career, we would have to question whether he had provided appropriate medical care to his patients."

In a further effort to block Foster's nomination, opponents later expanded their criticisms to include accusations that he knew about inhumane syphilis studies on African-American men and that he sterilized mentally retarded women at a time when such practice was accepted by the medical community.

"This nomination quickly moved from pure (if there is such a thing) Senate politics to presidential politics and posturing," said NOW Action Vice President Rosemary Dempsey.

NOW and other backers focused on Dr. Foster's qualifications, particularly his "I Have a Future" program to help teenagers avoid unwanted pregnancy and have hope for the future. In early May, Dr. Foster's record and personal credibility jump-started his nomination by earning him the approval of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

Following the Committee's approval, Majority Leader Bob Dole set aside a previous threat to block Foster's nomination from ever reaching the Senate floor and, after meeting with Foster, agreed to bring the nomination before the full senate, but with some restrictions.

In light of Sen. Phil Gramm's promise to use a filibuster to prevent a vote, Sen. Dole decided to hold three hours of debate followed by a vote for cloture, which would mean an end to the debate. If a second vote the following day did not garner the 60 votes needed for cloture, the issue would be considered dead.

Unfortunately, both votes for cloture yielded only 57 "yeas," including all of the Democrats and 11 Republicans. It was a defeat that President Clinton said, "sent a chilling message to the rest of the country."

NOW President Patricia Ireland said the Republicans' actions were, "unfair to the nominee who would obviously win on a floor vote, and clearly a signal that women's reproductive right are in jeopardy.

"Sens. Dole and Gramm sacrificed a fair vote on a qualified candidate to improve their images in the eyes of Conservative supporters and advance their bids for the Republican presidential nomination."

Foster vows to continue his work, possibly in another post with the Clinton Administration. In nominating Foster and defending him to the very end, President Clinton helped underscore his own commitment to abortion rights heading into the 1996 elections.

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