Surgeon General Nominee Benjamin “Supports President’s Position” on Choice

Kay Steiger

Press reports confirm that Dr. Regina Benjamin, Obama's choice for surgeon general shares the "President's views" on choice.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated at 10:40 pm on July 14th, 2009 to reflect information provided in a Miami Herald article citing White House sources confirming Benjamin’s pro-choice perspective and her clinics commitment to referring patients in need of abortion care.  See the entry at the end of the article.  The title was subsequently changed to reflect this update.

A further update clarified restrictions on abortion under Alabama law.

Regina Benjamin, Obama’s pick for surgeon general, is
certainly an advocate for her patients. In 1995 the New York Times reported that one of her patients, Emile Lyons, then 79 years old, called her an angel. He was suffering from an abdominal
aneurysm and being rushed to the hospital.  As he was loaded into an ambulance, he noticed a familiar face, his
family doctor.  Benjamin had climbed into the ambulance to ride with
him on the 30-minute journey to the hospital in Mobile, Alabama.

Benjamin has impressive credentials for the
position of surgeon general. Her general practice clinic, Bayou La Batre,
is based in rural Alabama.
A woman who has both her M.D. and M.B.A. (the Times profile noted that she made a 250-mile round-trip commute to New Orleans twice a week
to earn her M.B.A.), she also has impressive public policy credentials. She
worked on Kaiser Family Foundation’s Commission
on Medicaid and the Uninsured
, served on the American Medical Association’s
Women in Medicine Panel from 1986 to 1987, was president of the AMA’s Alabama chapter (the
first black woman) from 1997 to 1998, and has served on local and state
government health boards. She even made Time‘s
list
of young leaders to watch in 1994.  She also is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

But the announcement of Benjamin as the surgeon general pick
was met with silence from pro- and anti-choice groups alike, largely
because it remains unknown where, exactly, Benjamin stands on reproductive
health and rights. The White House refused to answer questions about reproductive rights
at a press
conference
where they announced her nomination on Monday. She also hasn’t
worked with Planned Parenthood or the ACLU in Louisiana, and has kept her distance from
abortion-related discussions in the press.

In fact, the only statement Benjamin has made on public record
about abortion came on the heels of a debate over the American Medical
Association’s official policy on abortion at a conference in December 1996. The
AMA’s governing body voted to re-affirm the organization’s policy that the
"termination of pregnancy is a medical matter between the patient and
physician, subject to the physician’s clinical judgment, the patient’s informed
consent and the availability of appropriate facilities."

During the conference, on Dec. 10, 1996 the AMA discussed whether
they should recommend training doctors in how to perform abortions. The
organization urged doctors to learn "more than just the ethics of it,"
according to a report by the Associated Press. The report quoted Benjamin, who
was then a delegate to the AMA, as saying, "We are adopting a policy that
medical school curriculum provide the legal, ethical, and psychological
principles associated with abortion so students can learn all the factors
involved."

That is the extent of Benjamin’s known position on abortion.
Some have discussed whether her religion, practicing Catholicism, might affect
her position on this issue, but many who identify as Catholic or practice
Catholicism also identify as pro-choice. (A poll
conducted by Catholics for Choice shows that about three-quarters of Catholics
don’t believe they must endorse the views put forth by the Pope.) It’s hard to
tell whether she falls into the more traditionalist camp of Catholics or has views more in line with the majority of more progressive Catholics in the United States.

The state of Alabama,
where Benjamin has done much of her work, makes it extremely
difficult for women to obtain abortions. While the state’s climate regarding choice on its face can’t provide clues about  Benjamin’s own positions, it’s worthwhile considering the reality of reproductive health access in her state. Alabama’s governor and state
legislature are both anti-choice. NARAL Pro-Choice America has determined that 93
percent of Alabama’s
counties do not have an abortion provider; this includes six of the
state’s major metropolitan areas. In fact, abortion rate for Alabama women has been
falling since the mid-1990s. The Guttmacher
Institute reports
that the abortion rate was 11.8 per 1000 women in Alabama in 2004, down more than 22 percent
since 1996.  Alabama
has passed laws that ensure contraception for low-income women through
Medicaid.

Elizabeth Nash, a public policy associate at Guttmacher,
notes that laws in Alabama are extremely restrictive on abortion.

Guttmacher Policy Brief on Alabama indicates that the following restrictions on abortion care were in effect as of January 2008:

  • The parent of a minor must consent before an abortion is provided.
  • A woman must receive state-directed counseling that includes
    information designed to discourage her from having an abortion and then
    wait 24 hours before the procedure is provided.
  • Public funding is available for abortion only in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest.

 

The state
will only pay for abortions under Medicaid in cases of rape, risk to the
mother’s life, or incest; women who choose abortions must have an ultrasound
performed with an option to view it.  The state also allows the sale of the infamous "choose life" license plates.

But despite the fact that Benjamin has remained largely
silent on abortion rights, she certainly advocates for women who are uninsured.
According to the results from the Kaiser Commission on the Uninsured to which Benjamin was a consultant, 41 percent of poor women (those at or below the federal
poverty line) are uninsured. Of women that qualify as near poor (below 200
percent of the poverty line and excluding those under it) 31 percent are
uninsured.

Current president of the Medical Association of the State of
Alabama Dr. Jorge Alsip
has been a colleague of Benjamin’s in various capacities, including
occasionally running into her at church, for more than 15 years. He noted that
while she doesn’t work specifically on women’s issues, she has worked on
insuring access to underserved areas. "Her clinic’s certainly providing care to
an underserved community. A lot of times that falls onto women … so she’s
supporting them in that way," Alsip said.
"Just knowing her and knowing her practice, I think providing health care
coverage to the uninsured is going to be at the top of her list, [as well as]
eliminating health care disparities and trying to get health care to the
underserved areas."

It’s certain that, if done right, health care reform will in a broader sense be a win for women. Still, reproductive rights and
access to reproductive health services have not been significant parts of the debate over health care reform.
In many ways, what Obama is doing with a pick like Benjamin is side-stepping
reproductive issues. She is an outstanding candidate with an impressive resume,
free of any reference to pro-choice groups.  By choosing a woman who rebuilt her rural
clinic three times after it was destroyed by hurricanes and fire, pursued a
medical degree despite never encountering a black doctor before college and became a
strong advocate for the uninsured in rural areas, Obama has offered a candidate that
may be difficult to criticize.  And in what may be a political bonus for Obama, she also has managed to
largely avoid the abortion question in the public sphere. This might be good
for the Obama administration, which doesn’t want to get bogged down in debates
over abortion at the cost of reforming health care, but it does little to
improve access to reproductive health services more broadly or abortion care more specifically for women in Alabama….or nationwide.

 

UPDATE 7-14-09, 10:40 PM: 

From the Miami Herald:

Regina Benjamin’s Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic doesn’t perform
abortions. A clinic employee who declined to be identified said by
telephone that patients seeking information about abortions would be
referred to providers in the state.

But White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said Benjamin "supports the president’s position on reproductive health issues."

Obama supports abortion rights and public funding of contraception and sex education.

Cherlin
continued: "Like him she believes that this is an issue where it is
important to try and seek common ground and come together to try and
reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. As a physician, she is
deeply committed to the philosophy of putting her patients’ needs first
when it comes to providing care."

Benjamin also was a board
member of Physicians for Human Rights, an international group that has
advocated access to safe abortions in its investigation of human rights
conditions in some countries.

 

 

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

News Abortion

Texas Pro-Choice Advocates Push Back Against State’s Anti-Choice Pamphlet

Teddy Wilson

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated since 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature.

Reproductive rights advocates are calling for changes to information forced on pregnant people seeking abortion services, thanks to a Texas mandate.

Texas lawmakers passed the Texas Woman’s Right to Know Act in 2003, which requires abortion providers to inform pregnant people of the medical risks associated with abortion care, as well as the probable gestational age of the fetus and the medical risks of carrying a pregnancy to term.

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated or revised since it was first made public in 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature. 

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) in June published a revised draft version of the pamphlet. The draft version of “A Woman’s Right to Know” was published online, and proposed revisions are available for public comment until Friday.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

John Seago, spokesperson for the anti-choice Texas Right to Life, told KUT that the pamphlet was created so pregnant people have accurate information before they consent to receiving abortion care.

“This is a booklet that’s not going to be put in the hands of experts, it’s not going to be put in the hands of OB-GYNs or scientists–it’s going to be put in the hands of women who will range in education, will range in background, and we want this booklet to be user-friendly enough that anyone can read this booklet and be informed,” he said.

Reproductive rights advocates charge that the information in the pamphlet presented an anti-abortion bias and includes factually incorrect information.

More than 34 percent of the information found in the previous version of the state’s “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet was medically inaccurate, according to a study by a Rutgers University research team.

State lawmakers and activists held a press conference Wednesday outside the DSHS offices in Austin and delivered nearly 5,000 Texans’ comments to the agency.  

Kryston Skinner, an organizer with the Texas Equal Access Fund, spoke during the press conference about her experience having an abortion in Texas, and how the state-mandated pamphlet made her feel stigmatized.

Skinner told Rewire that the pamphlet “causes fear” in pregnant people who are unaware that the pamphlet is rife with misinformation. “It’s obviously a deterrent,” Skinner said. “There is no other reason for the state to force a medical professional to provide misinformation to their patients.”

State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said in a statement that the pamphlet is the “latest shameful example” of Texas lawmakers playing politics with reproductive health care. “As a former registered nurse, I find it outrageous that the state requires health professionals to provide misleading and coercive information to patients,” Howard said.

Howard, vice chair of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus, vowed to propose legislation that would rid the booklet of its many inaccuracies if DSHS fails to take the thousands of comments into account, according to the Austin Chronicle

Lawmakers in several states have passed laws mandating that states provide written materials to pregnant people seeking abortion services. These so-called informed consent laws often require that the material include inaccurate or misleading information pushed by legislators and organizations that oppose legal abortion care. 

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) sent a letter to DSHS that said the organization has “significant concerns with some of the material and how it is presented.”

Among the most controversial statements made in the pamphlet is the claim that “doctors and scientists are actively studying the complex biology of breast cancer to understand whether abortion may affect the risk of breast cancer.”

Texas Right to Life said in a statement that the organization wants the DSHS include “stronger language” about the supposed correlation between abortion and breast cancer. The organization wants the pamphlet to explicitly cite “the numerous studies that indicate undergoing an elective abortion contributes to the incidence of breast cancer in women.”

Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place) said in a statement that the state should provide the “most accurate science available” to pregnant people seeking an abortion. “As a breast cancer survivor, I am disappointed that DSHS has published revisions to the ‘A Woman’s Right to Know’ booklet that remain scientifically and medically inaccurate,” Davis said.

The link between abortion and cancer has been repeatedly debunked by scientific research.

“Scientific research studies have not found a cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and breast cancer,” according to the American Cancer Society.

A report by the National Cancer Institute explains, “having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.”

DSHS spokesperson Carrie Williams told the Texas Tribune that the original booklet was written by a group of agency officials, legislators and public health and medical professionals.

“We carefully considered medical and scientific information when updating the draft booklet,” Williams said.