Critics Accuse Bush Administration of Trumping Science With Politics

They cite ex-surgeon general's testimony that White House tried to 'weaken or suppress' health reports

WEDNESDAY, July 11, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Health experts said Wednesday they agreed with former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona's claim that the Bush administration has continually silenced medical and scientific opinions in favor of politics and religious dogma.

During his testimony before a Congressional panel on Tuesday, Carmona said that "top Bush administration officials repeatedly tried to weaken or suppress important public health reports because of political considerations," The New York Times reported.

"It doesn't surprise us to hear that the administration was ignoring science and attempting to silence scientists. That's how they have operated about stem cells for years," said Sean Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, an umbrella group that represents more than 100 medical associations, colleges, scientific societies and foundations interested in promoting stem cell research.

Tipton said the White House's position on embryonic stem cell research was a political decision from "day one."

"The administration has been upfront that they didn't make this decision on scientific grounds," he said.

There is a legitimate moral consideration involving embryonic stem cell research, Tipton said. "There is a moral imperative to help the sick, and the Bush policy flies in the face of that," he said. "The American public gives a different moral value to a fertilized egg in a laboratory than they do to a 9-year-old girl with diabetes."

"Dr. Carmona was reflecting the view of the medical and scientific communities who want to move forward on stem cell research," Tipton added. He said Congress has voted several times to overturn the Bush policy on stem cells and that the majority of the American public supports stem cell research.

Carmona's testimony came just before confirmation hearings to name Dr. James Holsinger as the new U.S. Surgeon General. Holsinger's nomination has been criticized by gay right groups because of remarks he made in 1991 about homosexuality. In a report presented to the United Methodist Church's committee to study homosexuality, Holsinger argued that homosexuality is not natural or healthy.

"Dr. Holsinger has a record that is unworthy of America's doctor," Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said in a prepared statement. "His writings suggest a scientific view rooted in anti-gay beliefs that are incompatible with the job of serving the medical health of all Americans. It is essential that America's top doctor value sound science over anti-gay ideology."

In his testimony, Carmona, who served one term as surgeon general from 2002 to 2006, also said the Bush administration would not let him speak on or issue reports about stem cell research, emergency contraception, sex education, or prison, mental and global health issues.

The Bush administration has a long record of opposition to abortion and contraception. The White House has repeatedly touted abstinence as the only acceptable method of birth control and the best way to prevent sexually transmitted disease like HIV/AIDS. U.S. health agencies have denied funds to groups fighting AIDS that recommend condoms.

Carmona also claimed that Bush administration officials delayed and tried to "water down" a key report on secondhand smoke. The report released last year concluded that even brief exposure to cigarette smoke could be harmful.

In addition, Carmona testified he was ordered to mention President Bush three times on every page of his speeches. And he was asked to make speeches supporting Republican political candidates and to attend political briefings, the Times reported.

The Bush administration was quick to dispute Carmona. "It has always been this administration's position that public health policy should be rooted in sound science," Bill Hall, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told the Times.

The surgeon general "is the leading voice for the health of all Americans," Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman, told the newspaper. "It's disappointing to us," Lawrimore said, "if he failed to use this position to the fullest extent in advocating for policies he thought were in the best interests of the nation."

Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe, director of the Health Research Group at Public Citizen, said Carmona's testimony illustrated a longstanding tactic of the Bush administration.

For example, Wolfe said, when Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, now the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, was director of the National Cancer Institute, he told his subordinates that his job was to carry out the mandates of the White House. "The White House mandate is somewhat deficient in medical and scientific underpinnings," Wolfe said.

"Carmona is another example of someone who got their job because it appeared he would toe the line," Wolfe said. "To impose a belief system that is counter to medical and scientific evidence on the whole country is unacceptable."

Another expert agreed that medical practice should be driven by science, and not by political or religious ideology.

"Only Dr. Carmona can know exactly what exchanges he had in private with the current administration," said Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "But certainly the view that this administration has been heavy-handed in constraining public health policy, practice, research and dialogue is widely held. Public health practice, like medical practice, should be driven by science, not ideology."

Carmona's remarks aren't the first time the Bush administration has been accused of trying to influence U.S. medical policy to reflect a more conservative point of view.

In 2002, women's health advocates denounced the appointment of a Kentucky obstetrician opposed to abortion to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on reproductive health.

Pro-choice groups criticized the selection of Dr. W. David Hager, a part-time professor at the University of Kentucky. The pro-choice groups charged him with basing his medical beliefs not on sound science, but on Christian dogma.

More information

For more information on the Surgeon General, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

SOURCES: David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director, Prevention Research Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; Sidney M. Wolfe, M.D., director, Health Research Group, Public Citizen, Washington, D.C.; Sean Tipton, president, Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, Washington, D.C.; July 11, 2007, The New York Times
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