Former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders presses for better health care for teens, minorities and the poor.
Former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders presses for better health care for teens, minorities and the poor. (By Danny Johnston -- Associated Press)
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

At home in Arkansas, Joycelyn Elders was taking a little breather. The day before she was in Philadelphia, where she talked about fighting AIDS in minority communities. Two days later, she would be in New York, giving a lecture on advancing cultural connections with health concerns. Then, it would be on to Gettysburg, Pa.

Elders, 72, who served a brief but memorable turn as surgeon general in the Clinton administration, from 1993 to 1994, has never stopped preaching her gospel of public health -- reducing sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy and improving health care for poor people, women and minorities.

"I've been on the lecture circuit, working very hard," Elders said. "I've served on some boards and councils and I've done some writing -- not as much as I'd like, with my schedule of talks."

Talking is what got Elders into trouble in Washington. She arrived with great fanfare as the first black woman to be surgeon general, a sharecropper's daughter who overcame racism and poverty to rise to the top of her field. But she was preaching safe sex and condom use at a time policymakers didn't want to hear it. Even more, they didn't want to hear about masturbation. In December 1994, during a talk, someone asked Elders what she thought

of discussing masturbation with young people as a way to prevent them from having unsafe sex. She said, well, yes, masturbation probably should be discussed in a sex-education curriculum.

Critics were apoplectic. They said she was promoting teaching masturbation to children. The story wouldn't die, and she was forced to step down.

Elders has no plans to retire. "Obviously I'm very concerned about health care for all Americans," she said, "and I'm especially concerned about the disparities in health care. I have a love affair with adolescents, and I'm always out there making comprehensive health education and services a priority, as well as AIDS and women's health."

-- Evelyn Nieves

© 2006 The Washington Post Company