WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The first U.S. surgeon general appointed by President George W. Bush accused the administration on Tuesday of political interference and muzzling him on key issues like embryonic stem cell research.
"Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointees' ideological, theological or political agenda is ignored, marginalized or simply buried," Dr. Richard Carmona, who served as the nation's top doctor from 2002 until 2006, told a House of Representatives committee.
"The problem with this approach is that in public health, as in a democracy, there is nothing worse than ignoring science, or marginalizing the voice of science for reasons driven by changing political winds. The job of surgeon general is to be the doctor of the nation, not the doctor of a political party," Carmona added.
Carmona said Bush administration political appointees censored his speeches and kept him from talking out publicly about certain issues, including the science on embryonic stem cell research, contraceptives and his misgivings about the administration's embrace of "abstinence-only" sex education.
Carmona's comments came two days before a Senate committee is due to hold a hearing on Bush's nomination of Dr. James Holsinger as his successor. The administration allowed Carmona to finish his term as surgeon general last year without a replacement in place.
Gay rights activists and several leading Democrats have criticized Holsinger for what they see as "anti-gay" writings, but the White House has defended him as well qualified.
U.S. surgeons general in the past have issued influential reports on subjects including smoking, AIDS and mental health.
"Political interference with the work of the surgeon general appears to have reached a new level in this administration," said Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to which Carmona testified.
"The public expects that a surgeon general will be immune from political pressure and be allowed to express his or her professional views based on the best available science," he said.
Carmona said he was politically naive when he took the job, but became astounded at the partisanship and manipulation he witnessed as administration political appointees hemmed him in.
Bush in 2001 allowed federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, but only with heavy restrictions that many scientists condemn as stifling.
Carmona said the administration prevented him from voicing views on stem cell research. Many scientists see it as a promising avenue for curing many diseases. But because it involves destroying human embryos, opponents call it immoral.
Carmona said he was prevented from talking publicly even about the science underpinning the research to enable the U.S. public to have a better understanding of a complicated issue. He said most of the public debate over the matter has been driven by political, ideological or theological motivations.
"I was blocked at every turn. I was told the decision had already been made -- stand down, don't talk about it," he said.
Carmona testified with two predecessors, Dr. C. Everett Koop, who served under President Ronald Reagan, and Dr. David Satcher, named by Clinton but whose term ended under Bush.
Carmona said some of his predecessors told him, "We have never seen it as partisan, as malicious, as vindictive, as mean-spirited as it is today, and you clearly have worse than anyone's had."