Joycelyn Elders Puts Congress on Blast

As social conservatives push cuts for reproductive health services, the outspoken former surgeon general says that not much has changed since her '90s battle with them.

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To the relief of many on the political left, last week's budget negotiations ended in a compromise that spared funding for Planned Parenthood. Republicans targeted the family planning agency -- one of the largest recipients of Title X, the federal grant program dedicated to reproductive health services for low-income patients -- because it provides abortions, among other preventive health care services. Although no federal funds under the program are used for abortion, during the tense 2011 budget talks, more than $300 million in cuts to Title X were on the line.

On Thursday, House Republicans continued the fight by voting for a stand-alone resolution to defund Planned Parenthood, a measure that the Senate promptly voted down. But as bigger negotiations loom concerning the 2012 budget and the debt ceiling, conservatives in Congress have signaled that their mission isn't over. It's a political climate all too familiar to Dr. Joycelyn Elders.

Elders, who served as the first African-American U.S. surgeon general for 15 months during the Clinton administration, was a polarizing figure during her days in Washington. Although her advocacy of condoms in high schools rankled conservatives, she shocked much of the country when she was asked, at a 1994 United Nations conference on AIDS, about promoting masturbation to prevent young people from engaging in risky sexual activity. "I think that it is part of human sexuality," Elders replied, "and perhaps it should be taught." Amid ensuing outrage, she was forced to resign.

Today Elders, 77, is a retired professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Arkansas who continues to address sexual health on the lecture circuit. Feisty as ever, she spoke to The Root about the current battle over women's health, why she thinks she was right in the '90s, and why she's so tired of lawmakers "playing vaginal politics" that she could "just vomit."

The Root: When you were surgeon general in 1994, Republicans had just taken over the House of Representatives with a socially conservative agenda. Watching the current debate in the House over Title X funding, are you experiencing déjà vu?

Joycelyn Elders: It certainly does remind me of that time, and it's an indication of just how far we have not come. We're still in the same spot almost. But I think today women are more aware of what's at stake, and because of that we've got to stand up and fight back, especially African-American women.

TR: What do you think is at stake exactly?

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JE: If you're rich and don't have to worry about it, then nothing. Except for the fact that you will have a lot more poor, uneducated women with children to support. What's at stake is that these women wouldn't have contraceptives, we would have less STD testing, less pelvic exams, fewer cervical-cancer screenings, less breast exams, less testing for diabetes. Planned Parenthood and Title X funding goes to women's health, not abortion. The mean income for most women who go to a Title X clinic is less than $10,830 a year. That's poor.

TR: As Congress moves on to debate over the 2012 budget, it's very likely that Planned Parenthood will be on the chopping block again. Is this a mostly symbolic debate to get the Republican base revved up, with no chance of passing? 

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM