Top doc under the knife

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 December, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 December, 1994, 12:00am

NOW that the dust has settled on the brief reign of Joycelyn Elders as President Clinton's Surgeon General, it is worth taking the time to read the comments which apparently prompted her sacking last week.

'In regard to masturbation, I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality and it's a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we've not even taught our children the basics. And I feel that we have tried ignorance for a very long time, and it's time we try education.' These remarks, delivered at a United Nations forum on AIDS, were not made in a speech, but in reply to a question on whether masturbation education should be discussed.

Short of ignoring the question and offending the audience, it is difficult to imagine how Mrs Elders could have made her response any more bland.

Masturbation, she suggested, was 'part of human sexuality' - no sex educator would have no problems there; and as for allegedly proposing that self-abuse enter the curriculum next to modern history and needlework, her exact words were 'part of something that perhaps should be taught.' In other words, if we as adults accept that kids are going to learn about and eventually practise all sorts of sexual behaviour, it is worth examining whether teachers have a role in helping them develop. Particularly (in the context of where Mrs Elders made her comments) in the age of AIDS.

Nevertheless, on learning of the remarks, Mr Clinton sacked his old Arkansas buddy on the spot. He had clearly been looking for an excuse to do so, especially since one of new Speaker Newt Gingrich's first demands after the election sweep was that he take that course.

The decision, therefore, was a political one - designed to please the conservative majority in Congress and quell fears that his administration was leaning too left.

The sacking pleased many inside and outside the White House, and Mrs Elders took it with a grace beyond its merits.

But Mr Clinton's decisive act, however minor in terms of the national picture, was a startling warning as to how the November 8 electoral losses will change his presidency.

The Elders sacking is a troublesome indication not only of how deeply entrenched sexual ignorance and suppression is across America, but also of how powerless even a liberal, go-ahead president is to change things.

FIRSTLY, Mr Clinton knew exactly what he was doing when he appointed Mrs Elders. She had worked for the Arkansas government for years and already had a reputation for outspokenness on ways of educating children out of the cycle of drugs, unwanted pregnancy, and welfare dependency.

He even boasted about it, and pushed hard to get her nomination narrowly through the Senate.

Having been appointed to shake things up, Mrs Elders gently did so, making a series of mainstream remarks about distributing condoms in schools and accusing the pro-life lobby of being dominated by the Christian right.

Perhaps the only real faux pas she committed, however, was in making remarks suggesting that the legalisation of drugs was worth studying.

Never mind that the idea is hardly an extremist view, since many minds of centre, left and right have suggested it as the only solution to violent crime; critics jumped on reports which erroneously claimed she was advocating legalisation, when in fact - like the masturbation comments - Mrs Elders merely discussed looking at the issue.

Bear in mind here that Surgeon General has no real power, except as a spokesperson on public health - she is a general without an army, as the saying goes.

In other words, Mrs Elders was doing her job - to talk loudly about health issues that do not deserve to gather dust under the political carpet.

But if Mr Clinton began to shrink away from the role his appointee was playing, one wonders why he did not act immediately after the controversial drugs speech.

Ironically, the first person to be offered her job was Everett Koop, who did it for years under Ronald Reagan. Perhaps the President no longer cares about teenage AIDS and pregnancy - in which case he finally agrees with Newt Gingrich on something.