Obama’s Catholic Surgeon General

Is President Obama’s pick for surgeon general a supporter of legal abortion? Comments she once made have pro-lifers urging caution.

WASHINGTON — Catholics wonder if they face the prospect of another pro-abortion Catholic in an important Obama administration position.

McClatchy Newspapers posted an article on July 14 titled “Obama’s surgeon general pick: a Catholic who backs abortion rights.” It quotes an Obama spokesman who said she “supports the president’s position on reproductive health issues.”

At first glance, President Obama’s nominee for U.S. surgeon general could not have a more rock-solid pedigree in the Church: Alabama family physician Regina Benjamin’s family helped to found a parish for fellow black Americans, the Shrine of the Holy Cross in Daphne, Ala., rather than suffer segregation in the pews; as a child, she attended Mass there.

She serves as a lector at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, Ala.

What’s more, for her work ministering to the medical needs of the poor through the rural health clinic she founded and thrice rebuilt after hurricanes and fires, she was honored by Pope Benedict XVI with the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross only three years ago.

But while Benjamin’s nomination as the country’s top public health officer may gladden the hearts of some Catholics, pro-lifers of all faiths are expressing dismay at remarks reported by LifeNews that it claims shows she is pro-abortion.

“We are adopting a policy that the medical school curriculum provide the legal, ethical and psychological principles associated with abortion so students can learn all the factors involved,” she told the Associated Press in 1996, in support of an American Medical Association proposal that medical schools teach more “about abortion.”

Not everyone agrees with LifeNews’ interpretation of the comments, however. Paulette Bullin, a Mobile nurse and president of that city’s chapter of Alabama Citizens for Life, notes that Benjamin says doctors should be trained “about” abortions and not “to do” them.

“I can understand her wanting people to learn about abortion,” she said.

More problematic, Bullin admits, is Benjamin’s reported membership in Physicians for Human Rights, an organization that advocates legalizing abortions in countries where its prohibition leads women to seek dangerous and illegal operations.

While she has never seen Benjamin at pro-life events, she reports that “her aura and general demeanor suggests she is a very benevolent kind of person. She’s genuinely concerned for patients. I wouldn’t take her to be a raving pro-abort like some of them.”

By “some of them,” Bullin indicates she means other prominent Democratic politicos who are practicing Catholics and ardently pro-abortion, from Vice President Joe Biden to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. “It’s making a mockery of the faith,” said Bullin.

Retired Mobile Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb is an ardent supporter of Benjamin. “In the medical profession, she has been outstanding, particularly for poor people,” he told Catholic News Service.

Also supportive is Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League, who declared that Obama picked the right person. “Dr. Benjamin is a hero to all those victimized by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” he said.

Donohue also cited Benjamin’s remarks in an interview with Catholic Digest: “Church was always a very important part of my life. I believe I am carrying on the healing ministry of Christ. I feel obligated to help continue his works.”

Msgr. Michael Farmer, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Mobile, is another fan. “She has a good reputation here for providing medical care, especially to the most needy.” As for reports about pro-choice statements, Msgr. Farmer told the Register, “She’s made no statements about abortion that I know of.”

Nor were either abortion or faith on the agenda when President Obama introduced her July 13. The president emphasized her charity in serving indigent patients pro bono and even footing their pharmacy bills on occasion. “When people couldn’t pay, she didn’t charge them,” said Obama. “When the clinic wasn’t making money, she didn’t take a salary for herself.”

Benjamin herself said she wanted to be “America’s family physician” and to work with the president to end what she called the country’s “health-care crisis.” Her own family couldn’t attend the announcement, she said, because of “preventable illnesses” such as lung cancer, diabetes and AIDS-related illnesses.

Benjamin is avoiding press comments during the nomination process, and the White House did not provide a response to the Register by press time.

Political scientist Michael New, a professor at the University of Alabama, says the Obama administration has adopted a conscious strategy of “appointing Catholics who support legal abortion like Dr. Regina Benjamin. This has the political advantages of showing that 1) there is disagreement among Catholics about sanctity-of-life issues and that 2) Catholics who support legal abortion can be successful politically.”

But Bullin thinks Benjamin may surprise the Obama administration. “I think she’s a different kind of person,” says Bullin. “I don’t think she’s going to be a puppet.”

Steve Weatherbe writes from

Victoria, British Columbia.

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