Tide turns against Clinton nominee

Washington - The White House is braced for a further tide of opposition against Henry Foster, following the revelation that Bill Clinton's nominee for Surgeon-General, already criticised for having performed abortions, had sterilized a number of severely retarded women in the 1970s, writes Rupert Cornwell.

The new disclosure capped a disastrous week for Mr Clinton and his advisers, summoning memories of the bungling and sloppy staff work of the early months of his administration. While Republicans quietly delighted in Mr Clinton's embarrassment, even normally loyal Democrats were publicly and savagely critical of how the White House had handled proceedings.

Even so, there is no sign the nomination will be withdrawn, despite the nearly unanimous view across Washington's political spectrum that Dr Foster cannot be confirmed. "We will fight for this nomination," Leon Panetta, the White House Chief of Staff, declared yesterday. Mistakes had been made, "but Dr Foster too is in this to the end. He is a good man, he ought to be given a chance for this nomination."

Mr Panetta insisted the fact that the 61-year old obstetrician-gynaecologist had carried out hysterectomies on a small number of mentally retarded patients had not affected Mr Clinton's support. "This was accepted medical practice in the 1970s. Since then views have changed, and Dr Foster's views have changed as well."

For all the respect Dr Foster commands among his peers, even the administration's wellwishers are astounded that it did not foresee the controversy his involvement with abortion would arouse. The appointment of a not especially important official has become a gruesome spectacle, distracting attention from other issues and advertising the very White House shortcomings which Mr Panetta's arrival was supposed to correct.

One consolation for Mr Clinton is that the affair could cause major problems for the Republicans. For the moment they are united against Dr Foster. But abortion is now centre stage in the run-up to the 1996 election, and threatens to reopen the rift between the conservative and moderate wings of the party.

The Republicans' defeat in 1992 is partly ascribed to internal feuding on abortion and other social issues. A tacit agreement had emerged to keep the topic out of the coming campaign. But the Christian Coalition, standard-bearer of the religious right, served notice it would not back any Republican presidential candidate who did not oppose abortion.

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