Center for American Progress

Keeping the Doctor Away: Ideology Is This Administration’s Prescription

Keeping the Doctor Away: Ideology Is This Administration’s Prescription

The former surgeon general’s marginalization is a symptom of a larger disease in this administration, observes Sam Berger.

Yesterday’s revelation that the Bush administration marginalized former Surgeon General Richard Carmona for trying put stem cell science before politics sadly comes as little surprise. This administration has been notorious for misrepresenting science and suppressing information in order to advance the narrow ideological concerns of a radical conservative minority.

As Carmona’s treatment makes perfectly clear, this administration is far more concerned with winning political battles than advancing life-saving science. Perhaps most disturbing about Carmona’s marginalization, however, is that he was one of the president’s own.

Appointed by President Bush in 2002, Carmona was quickly struck by the rampant politicization of his position. “Anything that didn’t fit into the political appointees’ ideological, theological, or political agenda [was] ignored, marginalized, or simply buried,” he testified before Congress yesterday.

As the nation’s doctor during the height of the stem cell debate, Carmona saw an opportunity to educate the public about an important issue in which “much of the discussion was being driven by theology, ideology, [and] preconceived beliefs that were scientifically incorrect,” he explained. But he was told to “stand down” by members of the Bush administration, and had information about stem cell research removed from his speeches.

Carmona was “astounded” by the political manipulation of science he witnessed in the current administration. And previous surgeon generals—including Dr. C Everett Koop, surgeon general under Ronald Reagan—told him “never had they seen… a new surgeon general so politically challenged and marginalized as during my tenure.”

But this is not the first time the president has ignored the opinions of his own advisors regarding stem cell research. Bush’s veto of legislation to modernize his outdated stem cell policy followed just a few short months after Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Story Landis, chair of the National Institutes of Health’s Stem Cell Taskforce, said that the Bush policy was slowing science and needed to be changed.

But these advisors should not feel too bad: President Bush has ignored most everyone else as well. He has twice vetoed stem cell legislation sent to him by bipartisan majorities of Congress under both Republican and Democratic control, despite the fact that 64 percent of the American people wanted him to sign the legislation into law.

His administration has also ignored the scientific community, overstating the potential of alternatives to embryonic stem cell research even though every major medical research organization and university in the country agrees that embryonic stem cell science holds the most promise.

So who is the president listening to? Apparently, a rabid ideological minority out of step with the American public and unwilling to compromise to advance lifesaving science.

These activists recently helped torpedo a human cloning ban in the House of Representatives—a ban supported by 86 percent of the American public—because it would not limit somatic cell nuclear transfer as well. And they are “objecting strongly” to the president’s current nominee for surgeon general, not because of his homophobic remarks but because of his efforts in Kentucky in 2002 to loosen onerous restrictions on somatic cell nuclear transfer and embryonic stem cell research.

Clearly, these ideologues are unlikely to be moved by scientific advances or political compromise. But in an effort to put aside politics and provide hope for millions of suffering Americans, supporters of the research in Congress have proposed just that.

Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) have put forward legislation that would update the president’s policy while staying true to his tortured logic. Bush’s response will go a long way toward showing if he is a representative of the American people or of radical ideologues.

As Carmona said, “the job of the surgeon general is to be the doctor of the nation, not the doctor of a political party.” Or, for that matter, the doctor of an ideology. The marginalization of the nation’s doctor, however, is only a symptom of the larger ideological disease infecting this administration. It’s high time the American people demanded a cure. 

Sam Berger is a researcher with the Progressive Bioethics Initiative at the Center for American Progress who works closely with Senior Fellow Jonathan Moreno on bioethics.

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Sam Berger

Former Vice President, Democracy and Government Reform