Surgeons General Censored, or On Personal Sovereignty


The front page of the New York Times today blares a story of political pressure and outright suppression of vital health studies on second-hand smoke, stem cell research, sex education and other controversial issues at the highest levels of the American medical establishment. Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona testified yesterday before a Congressional committee that anything he tried to say that didn’t support the Bush administration’s policies was ignored, marginalized, or simply buried.

“Much of the discussion was being driven by theology, ideology, (and) preconceived beliefs that were scientifically incorrect,” he said. “I thought, this is a perfect example of the surgeon-general being able to step forward, educate the American public … I was told the decision had already been made — ‘stand down, don’t talk about it.’ That information was removed from my speeches.”

Carmona was ordered to mention President Bush at least three times on every page of his speeches. Carmona, the Surgeon General of the United States, was strongly discouraged from attending the Special Olympics because of that organization’s long-standing ties to the Kennedy family.

What I find fascinating is not precisely this new piece of outrageous information detailing the Bush Administration’s disregard for the sovereignty of dialogue and reason in this great country, but that it seems this disregard stretches back even before Bush Junior.

VOA news reports that Carmona testified alongside former Surgeons General C. Everett Koop, who served under President Reagan, and David Satcher, who served under President Clinton and briefly under the first President Bush. Carmon’s predecessors also reported that their comments were edited, politicized, suppressed by the Senior Bush and Clinton Administrations. They did add that it seemed Carmon’s term as Surgeon General suffered a more severe censorship than their own. But that doesn’t detract from my alarm: how long has this been going on?

It took decades of government denials, whitewashing, nay saying and political gesticulation before DDT was banned, despite overwhelming evidence that it was harmful to human health and positively devastating to wildlife populations. Were the Surgeon Generals at the time ignorant of these effects? I find it incredibly unlikely. More likely, the suppression of vital public health information has been an institution in this country for a long, long time.

It took the powerful words of a muckraker, American biologist Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to turn the tide. Almost ten years after the book’s publication, DDT was finally banned.

What is the lesson in this? The Bush Administration is hideously awkward, astonishingly flagrant in its disregard of reason and open public discourse, and the media is having a field day destroying the reputations of the President, his allies, and his party. But the evils on our plate today – the suppression of vital information from the mouth of America’s senior health official – are nothing new. This has been going on for a while, according to the testimonies of other former Surgeons General – perhaps a very long while.

Now, as in the past, the solution is not some God-sent new Administration from “the other party.” Are we so exhausted and disgusted that we think Hillary’s Administration, or Obama’s, or Edwards’, will restrain themselves from the great tradition of censoring the honest opinion of the Surgeon General? I should hope not. This kind of hoping breeds bitter disappointment after disappointment, the Democratic Administration will be replaced by a Republican one, then again, and again, with our memories just short enough to forget every time.

I cannot say this in a way that won’t sound tired and unoriginal. I’m sorry. But there is nothing more necessary for Americans to do today to reinvigorate the principles our great nation is founded upon than to speak amongst ourselves and inquire into the truth of a matter if we wish to know it. Is second hand smoke harmful? A landmark study recently proved that, yes, and not only harmful, but harmful at the very first contact. I have no doubt that other studies have been conducted recently that show evidence to the contrary. Which results are true? We will not learn from the Surgeon General, it seems. No Administration will allow it, and no decision should be made for us by a man holding a heavily partisan and politicized public office. I say this not only with regard to public health, but also to foreign policy and domestic affairs and every difficult issue that influences we citizens here at home and from abroad. We can learn only from comparing the results of many sources and studies against one another, fact against fact, openly and rationally discussing the results in a public forum and then, at last, deciding for ourselves.

It is on this decision, this exercise of personal sovereignty within oneself, that all our great nation’s power and glory is founded – this and nothing else.

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