January 13, 2009

The Surgeon General and the Sex Talk

In last week’s Double Dose we referenced discussions concerning President-elect Barack Obama’s selection of CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta as U.S. surgeon general.

I missed including Kay Steiger’s piece at RH Reality Check, “But Can He Talk About Sex?“, which plumbs where Gupta stands on reproductive health issues.

Steiger looked at episode transcripts and found that the country’s most famous surgeon has largely avoided the issue on his popular CNN program “House Call With Dr. Sanjay Gupta“:

In a 2004 special on the worldwide HIV/AIDS epidemic, Gupta discussed “prevention” abstractly without ever mentioning condoms or even sex. In another episode on the spread of HIV a few months later, he quotes an HIV-positive man, Peter Staley, saying, “You can’t stop the spread of HIV unless you talk about sex.” But Gupta’s show doesn’t talk about sex. Instead, it cuts to an interview with former basketball star Magic Johnson. But the show’s ability to deal with HIV/AIDS improves over the years, and in 2007 “House Call” addressed the problems of transactional sex in African countries that presents challenges to stopping the spread of HIV.

Still, reproductive issues specifically rarely grace the screen. An entire episode devoted to “women’s health issues” covered only the topics of breast cancer, smoking, and heart disease. In a 2004 special on multiple births, he headed up the top of the news program with the news that pregnancies among girls ages 10-14 were on the decline, which he attributed to “abstinence programs and birth control,” a fairly ambiguous and tentative statement. Some have suggested that his ties to pharmaceutical companies are too tight, and that he supported Gardasil while the jury was out on its safety.

But when Gupta was consulted about emergency contraception’s then potential over-the-counter sale, he confirmed that Plan B was a “high dose birth control pill” and said that there wasn’t much controversy from the mainstream anti-choice community because “they think it actually acts before – actually prevents the insemination part of this and the creation of life,” thus quashing any claims that emergency contraception causes abortion.

Looking at other responses, here’s a new pro-Gupta column written by Donna Wright, health and social services reporter at the Bradenton Herald. Peter Canellos, Boston Globe Washington bureau chief, argues that Gupta doesn’t have enough independent expertise.

Writing at Neiman Watchdog, Herb Strentz, a professor emeritus of journalism at Drake University, notes that absent from the discussion over Gupta is Vice Admiral Richard Carmona, the former Surgeon General appointed by President Bush. Carmona, who complained about political interference and said the Bush administration privileged politics over science, was not asked to serve a second four-year term.

Strentz outlines the key criticisms of Gupta and goes on to note:

Even granted the legitimacy of these concerns, the news media should not lose sight of Vice Admiral Richard Carmona and the damage done to the nation when science is expected to advance a political agenda. That is part of the Bush legacy that needs to be repudiated by the Obama administration, and we need to be mindful of that with nominations such as the one for Surgeon General. Despite concern over Gupta, no one is complaining that Obama wants to discredit or ignore science. Just the opposite.


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