By Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 18, 2009
Regina M. Benjamin grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and attended a Catholic elementary school in her home town of Daphne, Ala., nestled along the Gulf Coast. Benjamin, President Obama's pick to be surgeon general, attends Mass regularly and has received an award from Pope Benedict XVI and another inspired by Mother Teresa.
But the Alabama country doctor also backs Obama's position on reproductive health issues, a position that potentially could put her at odds with the Catholic Church.
"Like him, she believes that this is an issue where it is important to try and seek common ground and come together to try and reduce the number of unintended pregnancies," White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said. "As a physician, she is deeply committed to the philosophy of putting her patients' needs first when it comes to providing care."
The White House declined to say whether Benjamin supports a woman's right to an abortion, but sources close to her selection say she does. Benjamin did not return a call to her clinic seeking comment. Rebecca Adelman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said that Benjamin is prohibited from speaking publicly until she is confirmed.
Those who know Benjamin said her beliefs will not interfere with her role as surgeon general, which would include acting as the country's chief health educator. If confirmed, she would lead the 6,000-member uniformed Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, issue public health messages and advise the president and health and human services secretary.
"We all have our religions, but when you speak as the surgeon general to the American people, it's not about your religion," said David Satcher, a former surgeon general under President Bill Clinton. Satcher taught community health to Benjamin at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. "I don't see why the surgeon general has to get involved in a discussion about abortion."
Benjamin graduated from Xavier University of Louisiana, in New Orleans, and earned her medical degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her clinic is one of two in the fishing village of Bayou La Batre and provides routine medical care to the town's poorest citizens. The clinic does not perform abortions, according to Benjamin's staff.
Jorge Alsip, an emergency room doctor and president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, described Benjamin as "dedicated, driven and determined." Alsip has served on various boards with Benjamin over the past 15 years.
Alsip, a Catholic, said he served with Benjamin on Alabama's Committee on Public Health, where abortion issues occasionally arose. He said he does not know Benjamin's views on the matter.
"You kind of have to park your personal beliefs at the door when they conflict with what your role is," said Alsip, who said he opposes abortion rights.
Sister Carol Keehan, president and chief executive of the Washington-based Catholic Health Association, said Benjamin's views will not affect her ability to do the job.
"This is not pivotal to the surgeon general's job," Keehan said. "From the perspective of being a practicing Catholic, you can certainly say that it matters. I think being willing to work to reduce [abortion] is a good thing."
Benjamin opened her Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in 1990. Since then, it has been wrecked by two hurricanes: Georges and Katrina. Each time, she rebuilt. A fire in 2006 burned down the clinic on the eve of its opening, taking with it drugs, equipment and documents, and forcing Benjamin to move her practice to a community center and later to a trailer arranged by the town's mayor, according to Nell Stoddard, the nurse who has worked for Benjamin for 19 years.
The clinic now operates from a brick house beside the burned building as the staff awaits the completion of a "nice, big clinic," Stoddard said. The new clinic is built on stilts to help guard against hurricane-related flooding.
Benjamin is known for not turning anyone away. If a patient cannot come to her, she goes to her. If a patient cannot afford medication, she gives it to him, Stoddard said.
"She's not a god, but in my eyes, she's a darn good person," said Stoddard, 79.
Benjamin, 52, grew up poor in rural Alabama and was raised in a small frame house by her mother, Millie, who later died from lung cancer. Her only sibling, Charles, died from an AIDS-related illness at age 44. Benjamin has never been married and has no children.
Friends describe Benjamin as the girl who wore pretty dresses when everyone else was wearing T-shirts and blue jeans. A cheerleader, she was one of the most popular girls at the integrated Fairhope High School, where she was active in the drama club, student council and the honor society.
"Everybody loved her," said Tessa Allen, who has known Benjamin since junior high school.
Earl Packer, Benjamin's longtime friend and high school prom date, called her nomination for surgeon general "well deserved."
Obama made the nomination several months after CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, the president's first choice for surgeon general, withdrew. That left the administration without a prominent health official in the midst of a swine flu outbreak.
Robert Lawrence, an internist and chairman of the board of Physicians for Human Rights, said he expects Benjamin to adhere to the law when it comes to abortion and other health issues.
"I would think that as surgeon general she would uphold the law of the land, and the law of the land guarantees women a choice for reproductive health," said Lawrence, who served with Benjamin on the PHR board from 1996 until 2002 and is director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "The charge of the surgeon general is to be the people's doctor and ensure that all those health services guaranteed under federal law are available to the people."