The U.S. Senate confirmed Vivek Murthy to serve as the next surgeon general on Monday by a 51-43 vote, filling a position that has been empty for 17 months.
His confirmation represents not only a victory for Democrats over the National Rifle Association (NRA), but also an opportunity—if Murthy takes it—to make a powerful case for science in women’s health.
Republicans had blocked Murthy’s nomination to be the nation’s top spokesperson on public health since February, mostly because the NRA took issue with Murthy’s advocacy for gun control as a public health issue.
About 30,000 Americans are killed by guns annually, the highest number in the developed world and the equivalent of a large airline crash every three days.
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Gun violence is a particular problem for Black women, according to a report from the Violence Policy Center. In 2012, 468 Black women were murdered by men, at a rate two and a half times higher than white women. More than half of those murders were committed with guns.
Murthy’s support for gun control could help protect women from domestic violence. He’s also spoken about the benefits of contraception to women’s health.
And while the political climate surrounding women’s health remains thorny, the surgeon general post could put Murthy in an ideal position to advocate for sensible, science-based reproductive health policy, Donna Barry, director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress, told Rewire.
“Prevention is a huge part of [the surgeon general]’s priority work, and sexual and reproductive health care is prevention,” Barry said.
The surgeon general’s historical role as the public health bully pulpit presents Murthy with a major opportunity, Barry said. Past surgeon generals spoke out about the dangers of smoking even when it was controversial, and Murthy could take a similar tack on women’s health.
“I think that because so much of our reproductive health care gets mired in politics rather than science, he will be a good spokesperson for the science,” Barry said.
Public figures willing to separate myth from fact on these issues would be crucial given coordinated anti-choice efforts to mislead legislators and courts on the science of abortion and contraception.
A push from Murthy in favor of HPV vaccinations would also be a boon for public health, Barry said. Not enough clinicians recommend the vaccine, but pressure from Murthy on his peers in the internal medicine field could help change that.
The Obama administration praised Murthy’s confirmation in a statement: “As ‘America’s Doctor,’ Vivek will hit the ground running to make sure every American has the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe.”
As Rewire has reported, Murthy’s nomination isn’t the first time the NRA has used its lobbying muscle to block an Obama nominee. The group’s opposition to a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee finally helped push Senate Democrats to change the filibuster rules for nominations.
Without that change, which let the Senate confirm nominees with a simple majority instead of 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, Murthy and the other nominations would have had a much more difficult time being confirmed.