THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY DR. HENRY FOSTER, NOMINEE FOR U.S. SURGEON GENERAL (as prepared) School of Public Health George Washington University
Thank you, Alan Weingold for that gracious introduction. It is a pleasure to be here at this prestigious university.
You guys gave me a lot of inspiration. Nobody expected your men's basketball team to beat the number one team in the country last week, but you did.
So I know you understand what it feels like to have a tough battle ahead of you.
It is fitting that the President announced his intent to nominate me for the position of Surgeon General on February the second, Groundhog Day.
That's the day when, if the groundhog sees its shadow, we know we're in for six more weeks of winter. But if the groundhog doesn't see it, we know that spring is just around the corner.
I feel a little bit like that groundhog. Because ever since February the second -- when President Clinton and Secretary Shalala publicly called me to service the descriptions of myself and my work that I have read in the papers and seen on TV have cast an unrecognizable shadow of the man I really am.
Yes, I see a shadow, but it's not my shadow. And that means spring is just around the corner. In his announcement of my nomination, the President thanked me for taking on the difficult task of public service at a time when public service sometimes has a high price.
I thought I knew what he meant at the time. But after the past week -- I really know what he meant. So you might be wondering, why do I want this job? Let me tell you. If you've been listening to the news lately, You may have gotten the wrong idea about my professional career.
I have been a doctor for 38 years.
I have run a major health sciences center, comprised of four schools: medicine, dentistry, allied health, and graduate studies.
In 1972, I became one of the youngest people ever inducted into the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
I am the founder of the award-winning "I Have a Future Program," which was recognized as one of this nation's "Thousand Points of Light" in 1991 by President George Bush.
I am also a husband of 35 years and the father of a daughter and a son.
For the past 38 years, as a teacher, a university leader, and a practicing obstetrician/gynecologist, I have dedicated my entire professional life to bringing healthy lives into this world -- and helping people reach their full potential.
I have personally delivered thousands and thousands of babies. While chair of the Department of OB-GYN at Meharry Medical College, I taught more than 1,500 students. Founded 119 years ago, Meharry is among the nation's finest teaching institutions.
And I have worked tirelessly to improve the health of newborns, unborns, and their mothers.
When you've had the good fortune to participate in the miracle of birth as many times as I have, it is difficult to stand on the sidelines and watch so many people wasting the precious gift of life.
It is difficult to look around America today and see so much needless suffering because of a lack of knowledge about prevention... or a lack of access and utilization of quality health care...or the lack of those basic values that prevent violence or abuse from taking root.
But all is not lost.
America is moving forward to confront both our health care crisis and the crisis of values that has led to too much irresponsible behavior.
As your Surgeon General -- working with you and all Americans -- I believe that I can turn the small ripples of success that we have produced into great waves of progress.
I believe that I can help empower more people to reclaim the power over their own health....
That I can help inspire people in communities all across this nation to put a stop to dangerous and destructive behaviors. That I can help draw more attention to the tragic public health problems confronting us -- from the epidemic of violence to the spread of AIDS to the terrible problem of substance abuse.
The biggest tragedy is that these conditions are largely preventable and the deaths they cause are so often unnecessary.
Take violence, for example.
I believe we have the power to eradicate this scourge and prevent its recurrence.
At least 2.2 million Americans are victims of violent injury each year.
In 1992, there were more than 37,000 firearm-related deaths in this country.
Escalating violence in America causes not only unnecessary injury and death;
It is also a major cause of the disintegration and the hopelessness that pervade so many of our communities.
We can dig at the root causes of this epidemic and we can weed it out of existence.
I know we can -- but it's going to take entire communities, working together.
Then there's drug and alcohol abuse. A growing number of our young people are using illicit drugs and ruining their chances to grow into healthy and productive adulthood.
Recent surveys by the Department of Health and Human Services confirm that for three years in a row, the use of marijuana and other drugs by 8th, 10th, and 12th graders has actually risen.
At the same time, we see an increase in the number of older drug users who are showing up in emergency rooms.
We've got to do a better job at drug prevention -- sending clear, consistent anti-drug messages, listening to our young people, helping them form positive goals and giving them the support they need to achieve them. And then there's AIDS.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revealed that in 1993 AIDS overtook accidents as the number one killer of men, aged 25 to 44 in the United States.
And just this week, the World Health Organization reported that HIV cases are rising fastest among women -- and especially young girls and adolescents.
While we are still searching for a cure -- we know how to prevent the spread of HIV. And we must not be timid in sharing what we know.
The knowledge we have about preventing AIDS has the power to save millions of lives: the key is to commit ourselves not only to talking the talk -- but walking the walk -- of prevention.
Which brings me to the issue that the President asked me to place at the top of my agenda -- teen pregnancy.
And I want to commend the President in the strongest terms for his role in turning the national spotlight on this unacceptable problem.
All of the afflictions that I've just mentioned: violence, drug use, AIDS...all of them are linked to the unacceptably high teen pregnancy rate in this country.
Early sex and early pregnancy so often are linked -- either as a cause or a consequence -- of violence, drug use, AIDS, poverty, and so many other negative outcomes.
Every day 8,400 teenagers become sexually active. And every day, 2,781 teenagers get pregnant: this translates into 116 pregnancies per hour.
This is bad for the teens and even worse for their children. We know that children born to teenagers are more likely to have serious health problems, and are more likely to be poor.
We know that about 80 percent of children born to teenage parents who dropped out of high school now live in poverty.
If we want to prevent teen pregnancy, we must offer young people more than slogans and dependency.
We must offer them something that's worth more than gold -- we must offer them a quality education, a full array of health services, and enhanced self-esteem and life-options.
Too many children today believe their only hope is having babies. That's a dead-end dream and we've got to replace it with a dream of hope and unlimited achievement.
That's the philosophy that embodies the "I Have a Future" program we started at Meharry Medical College back in 1987.
Our approach is to expand adolescent health care programs beyond the schools, and bring them to the community, where they can become a part of the fabric of everyday life.
Our program is anchored in Nashville's public housing projects. With respect to sexuality the emphasis first and foremost is always placed on abstinence.
The program involves entire families and the total social matrix of the surrounding community.
Everybody from parents, grandparents to politicians, volunteers, and from the clergy to business leaders has a role to play.
There are three parts to the program: Fist, we equip adolescents with the basic information they need about health, human sexuality, and drug and alcohol use so they understand the benefits of abstinence and the consequences of early sexual activity and other risky behaviors.
Second, we provide a comprehensive array of adolescent health services, with a focus on abstinence. In some cases, that means access to birth control -- with a very strong emphasis on parental and community involvement.
And third, and most important, we help young people enhance their life-options through activities that improve their job skills, self-reliance, values and self-esteem.
For example, the youth entrepreneurial component of our program helps teenagers learn more about themselves and about the world of work by empowering them to start businesses in their communities.
This kind of skills-development and character-building is not only important for girls and young women -- but, as research is showing us, it is also critically important for boys and young men.
We have to take the time to understand all the unique aspects of young peoples' lives: building up their self-esteem, telling them we believe in them, but not simply treating them as collections of problems.
That is what we have done in "I Have a Future" -- and it works. We know of only one of the program's participants from 1988 to 1991 who became pregnant -- compared to 59 teenage pregnancies in the two other demographically similar Nashville housing projects where "I Have a Future" is not offered.
And just last year, 16 of the 24 program participants who graduated from high school went on to college. Eight of them were male and 8 were female.
It has not been easy -- and results don't happen overnight. In fact, it's a difficult process, and requires great dedication by many people -- but it is working.
This shows you what one community can do when it makes teenage well-being a real priority -- and I believe this kind of success is possible in every community.
But let me be clear:
As Surgeon General, I will work to empower local communities to develop comprehensive programs that fit their individual needs.
What works in Nashville may not work completely in Chicago or Charlotte.
It will be up to local communities to decide what is best for them. The Administration and I are congruent in our emphasis on abstinence.
Because I believe that abstinence and aspiration are inextricably linked.
My opponents say that this nomination is about abortion. I have dedicated my medical career to taking all appropriate medical steps to meet the health needs of my patients, and that includes performing legal abortions.
I believe in the right of a woman to choose. And I also support the President's belief that abortions should be safe, legal and rare.
But my life's work has been dedicated to making sure that young people don't have to face the choice of having abortions.
To do this, we have to put life's possibilities within reach of all our young people.
One of the reasons I have hope is because there are so many positive trends out there: like the steady decline in smoking over the past 20 years, the steep decline in the numbers of people drinking and driving, and the steady increase in the use of seat belts.
Americans are demonstrating that, with quality leadership, we can make headway on major public health problems if we put our minds to it.
Since the President asked me to take on the job of Surgeon General, I have been in the fight of my life.
I am standing strong -- and I appreciate the strong support of the President. And I appreciate your support.
One thing I know -- my fight is no tougher than the one I'm asking all of you to join: that's the fight to improve the health of all Americans and to prevent teen pregnancy.
I am eager to get to work, because there is so much work to be done. I won't hesitate to call on each and every one of you for help. These are all our children. And they need all of our help. Thank you.