WASHINGTON -- Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders was fired yesterday by President Clinton after the White House learned that she had recently spoken in favor of teaching about masturbation in public school sex-education classes.
"Dr. Elders' public statements reflecting differences with administration policy and my own convictions have made [the firing] necessary," the president said in a statement.
The flap was the latest of many for Dr. Elders, who had repeatedly embarrassed the White House with her frank, off-the-cuff comments about sex, abortion and drug legalization, and with her negative characterization of the Roman Catholic Church.
The president, Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and Health Secretary Donna E. Shalala had warned Dr. Elders, the nation's top public health official, not to do it again. But on Dec. 1, while speaking at a United Nations AIDS conference in New York, she did it again.
A conference participant asked: "It seems to me that there still remains a taboo against the discussion about masturbation. And please forgive me for trying to do my tiny bit by announcing that I masturbate, and I do want to ask you what you think are the prospects [of] a more explicit discussion and promotion of masturbation."
Dr. Elders said: "As per your specific question in regard to masturbation, I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality and it's a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we've not even taught our children the very basics. And I feel that we have tried ignorance for a very long time and it's time we try education."
Apparently, the only U.S. journalist present was a reporter for U.S. News & World Report, which asked the White House on Thursday to respond.
Mr. Panetta directed aides to determine whether the words attributed to Dr. Elders were accurate. Yesterday, she was confronted with them -- and acknowledged making the remarks. Mr. Panetta called the president, who was in Miami for the Summit of the Americas. "She must resign," the president said.
Mr. Clinton made the demand of Dr. Elders in a phone conversation yesterday, Mr. Panetta said. "If she had not resigned, she would have been terminated," Mr. Panetta said. "The president feels that [her remarks] are wrong. That's not what schools are for. That's not what the surgeon general should say."
Dr. Elders told the Associated Press yesterday that she does not regret saying schoolchildren should be taught about masturbation, and she suggested that her remarks were misinterpreted. "People have taken a lot of things I've said in a most unusual way," she said.
During the midterm election campaign, Democrats complained that Dr. Elders was hurting Mr. Clinton -- and costing them votes.
After the Nov. 8 election, in which both houses of Congress went Republican for the first time in 40 years, two angry Democratic moderates, Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma and Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, both called for her firing.
Pressed yesterday about what role politics had played in her firing, Mr. Panetta said that Dr. Elders' own comments were what got her fired. He said that she had been warned explicitly not to veer off administration policy and that he and other top White House officials considered her remarks at the AIDS conference nothing short of insubordination.
It was hardly the first time that Dr. Elders, who served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences for 26 years before entering government, had gone out on a limb.
At her first news conference after being appointed director of the Arkansas State Health Department by then-Governor Clinton in 1987, she was asked whether she supported giving out condoms in public schools. "Well," she said, "I'm not going to put them on their lunch trays, but, yes."
In a January 1992 remark that offended Catholic leaders and other foes of abortion, she told them to "get over their love affair with the fetus."
In January 1993, describing the need for sex education, she said, "We've taught our children in driver's education what to do in the front seat, and now we've got to teach them what to do in the back seat."
Last year, Dr. Elders was the subject of a letter to Mr. Clinton from then-Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, who decried her "contemptuous" depiction of the church. In her remarks, Dr. Elders had attacked the Roman Catholic Church for remaining "silent" about everything from slavery to the Holocaust.
"Look at who's fighting the pro-choice movement," she said. "A celibate, male-dominated church."
Republicans in Congress opposed her confirmation, which was ensured only after she apologized to Catholic leaders for those remarks.
Dr. Elders set off another furor in December 1993 when she raised the possibility of legalizing drugs.
Once again, the White House was forced to respond. "The president is against legalizing drugs, and he's not interested in studying the issue," White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said.
Later that month, Dr. Elders' son Kevin was charged with selling cocaine to an undercover police officer. In defending him, Dr. Elders maintained that she didn't "feel" that what he had done was a crime.
Dr. Elders, a 61-year-old sharecropper's daughter, was the most visible black woman in the Clinton administration and a personal friend of the president. But yesterday, to the delight of conservatives and law enforcement groups, Mr. Clinton felt compelled to get rid of her.
"Joycelyn Elders' resignation from the office of surgeon general closes a sad and tragic chapter in the history of that distinguished office," said Ralph E. Reed Jr., executive director of the Christian Coalition.
"We won't miss Dr. Elders' offensive attacks on the millions of Americans who believe that unborn children deserve legal protection," said Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans praised the move. "It's about time," said Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio.
Democrats were mostly silent, but abortion rights, gay organizations and liberal women's groups praised her commitment to battling AIDS and teen-age pregnancy.
"It's a chilling development," said Donald Suggs, spokesman for the New York-based Gay & Lesbian Alliance. "Elders had an obligation to be forthcoming on such issues."