Friday, July 13, 2007

Joycelyn Elders on the Clash of Politics, Science

Newsweek Health -
NEWSWEEK: What was your reaction to the testimony of the three former surgeons general?
Joycelyn Elders: What they were saying was true. I think each surgeon general has a different set of problems. But when they're suppressed—when they can't put the science out there for people to make good decisions about—then our ideas and our morality and ideologies and mythologies get in the way of good science. When I was the surgeon general, I did not feel that we should let politics invade science and marginalize it. And I think we’ve been seeing some of that. Of course, it didn’t start with [George W.] Bush. Look at Dr. [C. Everett] Koop, who stood up for AIDS when heaven knows the president [Ronald Reagan] didn’t want to even mention the word. And [the surgeon general under George H.W. Bush, Dr. Antonia Novella] was more muzzled than anybody ... When tobacco smoking was an issue, she only spoke about it after the state surgeons general were already suing the tobacco companies. But I do think the suppression has been going on more and more lately. And we just can't let that happen.

What does it mean for the office of the surgeon general when political pressure is brought to bear?
It destroys the office. And I think it's a very important office; it has a very important role. We're setting a dangerous precedent. We need to find a way to make that office more independent. We've got to be able to build a support system around the surgeon general such that he is not being constantly bombarded and afraid of losing his job because he's taken a position that's different from the president's. If all he's going to do is be the president's mouthpiece, what does the country need with a surgeon general?

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