Surgeon General-designate Joycelyn Elders, under attack by many conservatives for her outspoken advocacy of condom distribution in high schools, early sex education and government financing of abortions, underwent a bumpy Senate confirmation hearing Friday but seemed to weather it well.
Her performance, before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, was such that Democrats were given renewed confidence that the questions raised last week about a number of her past financial dealings would not block the road to confirmation.The hearing was concluded in just one day, at the end of which the committee's chairman, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., praised Elders for her forthrightness and scheduled a vote on her nomination for next Friday morning. A vote by the full Senate is expected before a monthlong recess begins in early August.
After the hearing, Sen. Daniel R. Coats, R-Ind., who has been Elders' most persistent critic among
the committee's members, said he was still not satisfied and had not yet decided which way to vote. "My questions were not fully answered," he said, "and my deepest concerns were only reinforced."
But a number of Republicans, as well as the Democratic majority, praised the nominee's plain talk, and both sides drew comparisons between her and C. Everett Koop, President Ronald Reagan's appointee as surgeon general, who was also outspoken, was also frequently criticized and is now widely admired.
Elders, a pediatrician whom Bill Clinton appointed director of the Arkansas Health Department in 1987, when he was governor, parried repeated questions about her finances and firmly defended herself on a matter that had been raised as an issue only in recent days: her decision on one occasion not to announce that a batch of condoms distributed by the state to public health clinics had proved to be substandard. By day's end, this was the issue on which Coats questioned Elders most closely.
The episode occurred in 1991, when the Health Department received four complaints that the condoms were breaking. The department notified the federal Food and Drug Administration, and subsequent testing showed that this batch broke at the rate of 50 per thousand condoms when under strain. The FDA's safety-standard maximum is four per thousand.
Elders recalled the condoms from Arkansas clinics. But, she said Friday, some had already been distributed by the clinics to the public.
She said her staff had decided, and she had concurred, that no public announcement should be made. "Very few of the condoms got out," she said. "We felt making an announcement would be creating a major scare that would make everyone afraid to use condoms."
Coats pressed her, asking whether as a mother she would not be angry if she learned that the Health Department had declined to inform her that defective condoms had been distributed to her daughter.
"The decisions you make as a mother, as a citizen and as a public health official are sometimes different," Elders replied. "We made a decision for the greater public good."
"Do you still believe that was the right decision?" Coats asked.
"Yes, I do," she said.
Many of the responses that Elders gave to questions about her financial affairs were familiar, having been offered by either herself or her supporters during the last week.