WASHINGTON – President Bush's nominee for surgeon general insisted Thursday that he harbors no bias against homosexuals in spite of his 1991 writings viewed by some as anti-gay.
Dr. James Holsinger faced tough questioning at his Senate confirmation hearing over his views on homosexuality and how he would react if he were pressured to put politics ahead of science in his role as the nation's doctor.
"I would resign," Holsinger said emphatically.
Concerns about his independence were spurred by former Surgeon General Richard Carmona's testimony two days earlier that the Bush administration muzzled him on issues such as abstinence education and stem-cell research because of politics.
A vote on the nomination of Holsinger, a Kentucky doctor, wasn't expected for several weeks.
At Thursday's hearing, he distanced himself from a paper he wrote 16 years ago that has been attacked by gay rights organizations and public health experts as inaccurate and inflammatory. The paper cited data showing elevated rates of disease among gay men, but some medical experts say he completely ignored other data that would contradict the paper's point that homosexuality is an abnormal function.
Still, at least one senator was not convinced Holsinger should be surgeon general. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., issued a statement saying she would not support Holsinger's nomination.
"Because of the questions that have been raised about Dr. Holsinger's qualifications and ability to fulfill the duties of the job, I do not believe that he will be able to provide adequate leadership in the public health field as Surgeon General, and I must go on the record as opposing his nomination," Clinton said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, asked Holsinger on several occasions to address various aspects of his paper on homosexuality for a study committee of the United Methodist Church.
"Dr. Holsinger's paper cherry picks and misuses data to support his thesis that homosexuality is unhealthy and unnatural," Kennedy, D-Mass., said.
Holsinger said it was not intended to be a scientific paper and that he relied on the information available to him at the time.
"First of all, the paper does not represent where I am today. It does not represent who I am today," Holsinger said.
Holsinger emphasized that the data he relied on came from the mid-1980s. He also said it represents a literature search that was done for him through a library.
"The issues that appeared in the review would not even be the major issues in front of our gay and lesbian community today," he said.
Holsinger told the committee that he fought to ensure that a conference on women's health include segments on the health needs of lesbians. At the time, he was chancellor of the University of Kentucky Medical Center.
"I fought fiercely for that even though I had a huge political pushback. In fact, our budget was being threatened in the state legislature," Holsinger said.
Kennedy also raised the issue of Carmona's allegations.
"His testimony showed that the office of the surgeon general has become a morass of shameful political manipulation and distortion of science," Kennedy said. "Dr. Holsinger has a responsibility to provide strong assurances and a clear plan for seeing that these abuses are not repeated during his tenure, if he is confirmed."
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said there was little doubt that Holsinger would be a strong administrator given his experience as undersecretary for the Veterans Affairs Department. He said some of the comments made about Holsinger make him wonder why anyone would allow their name to be submitted to the Senate for a position requiring confirmation.
"I'm deeply troubled, personally, as you might guess, by these allegations. Because I don't feel that they represent who I am, what I believe, or how I have practiced medicine for the past 40 years," Holsinger said.
"I can only say that I have a deep, deep appreciation for the essential humanity of everyone, regardless of their personal circumstances or their sexual orientation," he said.
Holsinger said if confirmed, one of his first priorities would be to tackle the issue of childhood obesity. He talked about how in Kentucky, where he was secretary of the state's Cabinet for Health and Family Services, he made an effort to put healthier foods in school vending machines and cafeterias.
Before the Senate hearing, gay rights groups, the American Public Health Association and 35 members of the House lined up in opposition to Holsinger's nomination. The Kentucky doctor garnered the support of a prominent former surgeon general, Dr. C. Everett Koop, as well as the American College of Physicians.
Kennedy introduced a bill on Thursday that would require a surgeon general nominee to be drawn from a list prepared by the Institute of Medicine. The legislation would let the surgeon general submit budget requests publicly and hire his or her own staff.
Holsinger is a professor from the University of Kentucky's College of Public Health. He worked for 26 years in a variety of positions at the Veterans Affairs Department, including stints as chief of staff or director at several VA medical centers.