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Foster Grilled on Pregnancy-Prevention Program

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Republican senators grilled the Clinton Administration's nominee for surgeon general last week on the effectiveness of a teenage-pregnancy-prevention program he founded.

As expected, some Republican members of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee used the panel's confirmation hearings on the nomination of Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. to question him about his record on abortion. Dr. Foster's nomination became controversial after he and Administration officials gave varying accounts of the number of abortions the 61-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist had performed.

But senators also spent a significant amount of time challenging the ~efficacy of the "I Have a Future" program, which Dr. Foster founded in Nashville in 1987. Based at Meharry Medical College there, the program works to encourage self-esteem and sexual abstinence among young men and women in two of the city's public-housing projects.

In nominating Dr. Foster, President Clinton praised the program, which has been awarded numerous honors, including recognition as one of President George Bush's "thousand points of light."

President Clinton has repeatedly said he would charge the next surgeon general with launching a "national crusade to reduce to teenage pregnancy," and Dr. Foster reiterated at last week's hearings that this would be his priority.

But Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., questioned the effectiveness of "I Have a Future" and said that its qualifications to be a national model for fighting teenage pregnancy were exaggerated.

He pointed to a letter from the program's current director to the Carnegie Corporation of New York--which finances the program--reporting no significant difference in pregnancy rates between participants in the program and teenagers in a control group.

"I don't blame you for being confused by the data," Dr. Foster said.

He explained that a large number of students entered the program during the middle of the year, and a disproportionate percentage of those teenagers became pregnant. The students who participated the longest had the lowest pregnancy rate, he said. He also noted that a large number of its graduates enter college.

But the nominee conceded that more studies are needed.

Lack of Good Data

The lack of adequate information linking prevention programs like Dr. Foster's with reductions in teenage pregnancy is nothing new to researchers in the field.

Jeannie Rosoff, the president of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a health-research group, said that a lack of funding for epidemiological studies and other factors have made it difficult to get a clear picture of what works.

"Typically [teenage-pregnancy-prevention] programs involve a small number of kids and they are funded for a short time, so it makes it hard to evaluate," she said.

Despite his criticism of the Nashville program, Senator Jeffords said last week that he would support Dr. Foster's confirmation, and another undeclared Republican on the panel hinted he probably would do so as well. The nominee is expected to win the panel's endorsement later this month.

But the Senate majority leader, Bob Dole, R-Kan., has said he would refuse to bring the nomination to a vote on the floor, and other senators have vowed to block it.

If confirmed by the Senate, Dr. Foster would succeed former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, whom President Clinton fired late last year.

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