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Picks For NIH Head, Surgeon General Side With Obama On Reproductive Issues, Despite Faith

June 12, 2017

Francis Collins, President Obama's pick to head NIH, and Regina Benjamin, Obama's surgeon general nominee, have spoken publicly about their religious beliefs but also have expressed views on issues such as embryonic stem cell research that conflict with church teachings, USA Today reports. Collins, who headed the Human Genome Project, is an evangelical Christian who supports the use of human embryonic stem cells in some medical research. Focus on the Family in a newsletter lauded Obama's choice of an evangelical to lead NIH but said that abortion-rights opponents cannot support Collins' views, "particularly since he supports destructive human embryonic stem cell research."

Benjamin is a Roman Catholic and sits on the board of the Catholic Health Association. She also is active in her local church and received a papal medal in 2006. According to USA Today, Catholic leaders from her native state of Alabama say they have not heard Benjamin voice support for abortion rights. The Bayou La Batre, La., medical clinic that she oversees does not perform abortions. Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, initially expressed support for Benjamin's nomination, saying, "Her tireless and selfless efforts are a model for all physicians." He later said that he opposes any possible support she might give "mandated abortion coverage" in health reform.

The White House has said that Benjamin agrees with Obama "on reproductive issues." Retired archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, who nominated Benjamin for the papal medal, said, "She is a practicing Catholic and faithful and, to the best of my knowledge, in all those questions that have arisen so far, there has never been a conflict in her practice and in her conversation with regard to what the church expects of medical practitioners." Former Surgeon General David Satcher, who taught Benjamin at Morehouse School of Medicine, said, "While the religion of the surgeon general may very well influence his or her ... approach, the message has to be the public health science," adding, "It's not a religious message. It's a public health science message."

Emilie Townes, associate dean of academic affairs for Yale Divinity School, said that Obama's choices represent his aim to "break the mold" of traditional politics, adding that Collins and Benjamin are examples of "big tent" evangelicalism and Catholicism (Banks, USA Today, 8/3).

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