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Federal File: Unforeseen controversy

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When the Clinton Administration nominated as surgeon general a Tennessee obstetrician respected for his work in reducing teenage pregnancy, its officials expected the new Republican-controlled Congress to embrace the nominee. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1995.)

Dr. Henry Foster Jr. seemed to carry none of the baggage that accompanied the previous surgeon general, Dr. Joycelyn Elders. Dr. Foster is a former director of Meharry Medical College in Nashville who ran a program to prevent teenage sexual activity that uses self-esteem building, job-skills training, and abstinence education.

But just days after President Clinton announced the nomination, it came under attack as questions were raised about how many abortions the doctor may have performed.

Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, which is to hold hearings on the nomination next month, said she was misled by Administration officials when she was told that Dr. Foster had performed only one abortion during his medical career.

Dr. Foster later said he had performed fewer than a dozen abortions, all to save the life of the mother or for victims of rape or incest.

The issue heated up further when abortion opponents launched a campaign to scuttle the nomination. The Christian Coalition vowed to activate its grassroots membership. And opponents began circulating a transcript of a federal meeting that allegedly quotes Dr. Foster.

On the transcript of a 1978 meeting of the Health, Education, and Welfare Department's ethics advisory board, Dr. Foster allegedly says: "I have done a lot of amniocentesis and therapeutic abortions, probably near 700."

Amniocentesis is a procedure in which doctors study the fluid surrounding a fetus in the womb, often to look for birth defects. A therapeutic abortion is generally defined as an induced abortion.

Dr. Foster denied making the 1978 remarks. But in a television appearance last week, he said a check of his records showed that he had performed 39 abortions.

As of late last week, the White House was scrambling to shore up its nominee.

Senator Kassebaum, a supporter of abortion rights, said the nomination would serve as a "litmus test" on abortion in the new Congress.

--Mark Pitsch

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