Foster Has His Say

SURGEON general nominee Henry Foster stirred everyone at his hearings before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee this week with accounts of his early career as a doctor in rural Alabama, delivering more than 2,000 babies a year.

Clearly, this is a man with remarkable commitment, whose more recent work has included widely praised efforts to help teen-age girls avoid pregnancy.

Dr. Foster's work as founder of the ''I Have a Future'' program in Nashville, Tenn., earned him, among other commendations, a ''Points of Light'' award from President Bush.

But Foster's accomplishments have nearly been eclipsed by the 39 abortions he performed over more than two decades as an obstetrician. That number emerged through a check of records from his practice -- a detail that should have been attended to by the administration during the early vetting of this nomination. Confusion over ''how many'' quickly arose after Foster's name was made public back in February, and the furor has never subsided.

Congressional opponents of the nomination like to say it's not the abortion issue, per se, but questions of credibility and honesty that bother them.

That may be true. But the record has now been established by the nominee himself, with candor and apologies for initial fuzziness.

Abortion, and the political energies it ignites on the Republican right, explain the fierce opposition to Foster. As Phil Gramm and Bob Dole compete to see who can be tougher on this nominee, they're not motivated by the belief Foster can't be trusted in the surgeon general's chair.

And politics is playing on the other side too. President Clinton takes a certain glee in ''going to the mat'' for Foster. He thinks he's got a majority of Americans on his side when it comes to abortion rights. Republicans, he calculates, will do themselves more harm than good by pulling out all stops to block the nomination.

The immediate action is in the labor committee, however, where chair Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas and two other undecided Republicans -- James Jeffords of Vermont and Bill Frist of Tennessee -- will decide whether the nomination advances. Foster is getting the chance to state his record and field questions, and if the GOP undecideds are listening with more than their political senses, they'll find little reason to vote ''no.''

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