WASHINGTON (BP)–James Holsinger, President Bush’s embattled surgeon general nominee, appeared to distance himself at a July 12 hearing from a controversial 1991 paper in which he described homosexual behavior as unnatural.
Holsinger testified before a Senate committee without the endorsement of some pro-family and pro-life organizations that sided with his past beliefs on homosexuality but were concerned about his past opposition to proposals to ban human cloning and embryonic stem cell research. Among the organizations declining to take a position on Holsinger’s confirmation is the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
No vote has been scheduled on the nominee by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The University of Kentucky medical professor arrived at the hearing after a five-week campaign promoted by homosexual rights groups seemed to help place his confirmation in jeopardy. The effort, led by the Human Rights Campaign, targeted a 16-year-old paper he wrote as part of the United Methodist Church’s debate over homosexuality.
In the article, Holsinger wrote that anal sex was unnatural and that it increased the chance of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. He also said injuries and diseases may take place “when the complementarity of the sexes is breached.”
HRC, the country’s largest homosexual political organization, and other groups accused Holsinger of being “anti-gay” and questioned his ability to separate his personal beliefs from his work.
When asked at the hearing by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D.-Mass., the committee chairman, about his view of the 1991 document, Holsinger said, “The paper does not represent where I am today. It doesn’t represent who I am today. And it represented a specific time and a specific context and a specific purpose.”
Holsinger told Sen. Sherrod Brown, D.-Ohio, he considers the issue “very different today. We are nearly 20 years past the majority of papers that were cited [in his 1991 article]. They were 1986, 1988 papers…. I don’t even think the same questions would be asked today as were asked” two decades ago.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, as well as the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America, chose even before the hearing not to support or oppose Holsinger.
Concerns were raised for some organizations by Holsinger’s testimony in 2002 and 2005 against legislative efforts in Kentucky against embryonic stem cell research and cloning. He opposed those proposals, expressing concerns over restrictions on research and harsh penalties that would result, according to a report in The Louisville Courier-Journal and a summary by a state legislative aide.
Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy, explained to Baptist Press the entity’s refusal to take a position on the nominee.
“It’s our understanding the surgeon general is not going to be addressing stem cell issues, and the issues he will be focusing on are issues with which we are in agreement,” Duke said. “So at this time we see no reason to oppose him, although we do not feel confident enough to support him either.”
During the hearing, Kennedy questioned Holsinger about his concerns with one of the Kentucky bills.
“The entire bill caused grave concern for me,” Holsinger said. “The reason simply is that it would have banned all research, regardless of whether it met the president’s decision in 2001. We were doing research under that decision on the current stem cell lines. But it would have banned all research.”
Holsinger told Kennedy he favors doing stem cell research under Bush’s policy, which bars federal funding for research that destroys embryos but permits grants for experiments on stem cell lines already in existence when the president announced his guidelines in August 2001.
“We are doing [stem cell research] effectively under the president’s current 2001 decision…. It seems to be we’re going with an effective program at the moment, and we should continue to track and see how things turn out as we go forward,” Holsinger said.
Kennedy asked Holsinger if there would be increased potential for medical advances if Bush’s policy were repealed.
“I have to confess, Sen. Kennedy, that I have since the 2002 hearing not had a lot of reason to stay engaged in the stem cell discussions,” Holsinger said. “So I’m not as informed on both the science on current stem cell work, as well as some of the new alternative processes that are coming. I simply don’t feel comfortable giving you my opinion when I don’t feel like I’ve had the proper time to study it.”
The Bush administration defended Holsinger.
“He supports the president’s policy prohibiting taxpayer funds for the destruction of embryos,” White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore told BP before the hearing.
She said the “most important thing with this entire discussion” is the president has appointed Holsinger not to deal with the stem cell issue but primarily to lead the fight against childhood obesity.
Though Concerned Women for America took no position on Holsinger’s nomination, it decried the attacks against him based on his religious beliefs.
“It is both inappropriate and unconstitutional for the Senate to require that any nominee pass an anti-Christian religious litmus test based upon the demands of extremist, left-wing, special interest groups,” Matt Barber, CWA’s policy director for cultural issues, said in a news release. “Essentially what these radical special interest groups and like-minded senators are saying is that Christians need not apply for public service. This is both hateful and discriminatory.”
Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy said in a news release that Holsinger’s critics would attempt to set up a “test that would exclude any nominee who is an orthodox Christian with traditional beliefs about sexual ethics. Dr. Holsinger serves on United Methodism’s Judicial Council, which has upheld the denomination’s policies regarding homosexuality. Like nearly all Christian churches, the United Methodist Church affirms sexual relations only within the marriage of one man and one woman.”
Data from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that risky homosexual behavior is contributing to dangerous increases in rates of infection for syphilis. The CDC reported an 8 percent rise overall in 2004, a fourth consecutive year of increase. Approximately 64 percent of the new cases were among men who have sex with men, up from just 5 percent in 1999.
Holsinger, 68, served for 26 years in the Department of Veterans Affairs and was appointed chief medical director of the Veteran’s Health Administration. He was chancellor of the University of Kentucky Medical Center from 1994 to 2003 before serving two years as the state’s secretary of the cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Bush vetoed June 20 a bill that would weaken his policy prohibiting federal funds for destructive stem cell research. He vetoed a similar bill last July.
Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into tissues and other cells, providing hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions. Embryonic research has yet to treat any diseases in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals. Extracting stem cells from an embryo destroys the days-old human being.
Unlike research using embryos, extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources –- such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow -– has nearly universal support. Such research has produced treatments for at least 72 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. These include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and sickle cell anemia.
In early June, three new studies were reported that showed skin cells can be converted to embryonic-like cells in the laboratory. The research on mice found the skin cells could be formatted to be nearly identical to embryonic cells, which scientists say appear to be the most potent and flexible for therapies. Experiments remain to be done on human beings, but the development raised more doubts about contentions by embryonic stem cell research proponents that the federal government needs to fund the deadly research.
Compiled by Tom Strode with reporting by Michael Foust, Art Toalston and Jennifer Thurman.