WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's nominee for surgeon general is a Catholic best known for founding an Alabama clinic that treats the poor, but her lesser-known support for abortion rights puts her at odds with her church and some of the groups that have praised her work.
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.
White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said, however, that 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 for Physicians for Human Rights, an international group that has advocated access to safe abortions in its investigation of human rights conditions in some countries.
The surgeon general is the nation's "chief health educator" according to the federal government's Web site. The office oversees the operations of the 6,000-member Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. While the job requires Senate confirmation, the surgeon general doesn't directly set policy, reporting instead to an assistant secretary within the Department of Health and Human Services.
Benjamin has broken barriers for black women in medicine, as the first named to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees, in 1995, and to lead a state medical society, Alabama's, in 2002. She's also the recipient of a MacArthur Genius award.
She notably kept afloat her clinic, which serves a poor minority population of shrimpers, after it was wiped out in Hurricane Katrina by borrowing against her home and maxing out her credit cards. She's been honored by the Pope.
Lloyd Dean, the president of Catholic Healthcare West, the largest hospital system in California, issued a statement saying he's "delighted" by her nomination.
Supporters and opponents of abortion rights have withheld comment on Benjamin's nomination, saying they wanted to learn more about her stances on reproductive rights.
That included the National Organization for Women and NARAL Pro-Choice, as well as the Catholic Health Association, on which Dr. Benjamin serves on the board of trustees.
On its Web site, the CHA says it believes "in health care from the Catholic Church's teachings on the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death."
Gregg Bloche, a doctor and lawyer who served on the Physicians for Human Rights board with Benjamin, said he didn't know her views on abortion and that it was never a focus of her advocacy work. "That is not something she's engaged in," he said.
"The story of her appointment and the potential of the job are, in my view, about getting people in the worst circumstances in life to be proactive about their own health needs, a grassroots initiative as part of a larger sense of both individual and common responsibility," Bloche said. "I think that's what her appointment represents. To get hung up on abortion would completely miss the point."
Msgr. Michael Farmer, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Mobile, Ala., told the Catholic News Agency that he didn't "explicitly" know about Dr. Benjamin's abortion stance and never discussed it with her. "I would hope that her position would be in line with the Church's position," he added. "As far as I know she has been in conformity with the Catholic Church."
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