THROUGHOUT his ultimately unsuccessful confirmation struggle, whenever he was asked what he would do as surgeon general, Henry Foster replied that he would work to combat teenage pregnancy. This week President Clinton launched a national campaign to reduce the number of teen pregnancies and named Dr. Foster, a Nashville obstetrician, to help guide the effort.
Anti-abortion activists denounced the appointment, saying it would doom the campaign to failure. Foster's nomination for surgeon general, which turned into a battle over abortion rights, was defeated last June by a GOP-led filibuster. Specifically, conservative Republicans challenged Foster's medical ethics and credibility.
This time should be different. To begin with, Senate approval isn't required for this post. Foster - well known for his ''I Have a Future'' program in Nashville, which works to discourage pregnancy and promiscuity among low-income teens - is a logical choice for the job and will likely be an effective liaison between Washington and local groups involved in the effort.
He'll report to the president on the progress of the bipartisan, private-sector program, led by a diverse, 12-person council. The aim is to educate communities about teen pregnancy and encourage more people to act as mentors to young people. It's what Foster has been doing successfully in his own community for years.
It's also what Clinton pledged to do more than a year ago, in his 1995 State of the Union address. The plan was scuttled by the demise of the Foster nomination. Now the president says he wants to reduce teen pregnancy by one-third over the next decade. The program could lose steam over its 10-year time frame, but it's nevertheless an important step.
Each year approximately 1 million teenagers become pregnant; 85 percent of those pregnancies are unplanned. There is a need for effective prevention programs on the local level - programs that are comprehensive, age-appropriate, and culturally sensitive. Clinton and Foster are on the right track.