WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's embattled choice for surgeon general fought back against his critics yesterday, even as support for him seemed to be eroding in the Senate and a new revelation came to light.
The Clinton administration acknowledged that Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. performed a small number of hysterectomies to sterilize severely mentally retarded women two decades ago, the Associated Press reported late last night.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Dr. Foster performed the sterilizations at a time when the medical community believed such procedures were justified as providing health benefits to the women.
Earlier in the evening, key GOP Senate sources said they were convinced that new information about Dr. Foster's past medical practices would be trickling out "for the next six months." His nomination as the nation's top public health officer has been rocked this week by revelations that he performed 39 abortions as an obstetrician-gynecologist.
Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum's top aides said after an emergency meeting in her office that the senator had decided to "lay low" for the time being but was convinced that Dr. Foster would eventually be persuaded to withdraw his own nomination. The Kansas Republican's Labor and Human Resources Committee will oversee the confirmation process.
But in a speech yesterday afternoon to George Washington University medical students, Dr. Foster declared that he was "standing strong . . . in the fight of my life."
"It's a political blunder in the extreme that we are even doing this," Mr. Biden said. "I'm not going to vote for a nominee where no deep thought was given before the nomination was sent up."
Mr. Biden was immediately excoriated by abortion-rights groups. few hours later, Mr. Biden recanted, saying that he had been speaking out of frustration with the White House and that he would withhold final judgment until the confirmation hearings.
Mr. Clinton's aides said they were committed to defending Dr. Foster, citing factors that even Republican senators say they understand.
Those include his race -- Dr. Foster is black, as was his predecessor, Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders, who was fired -- and yesterday, black Democrats called on Mr. Clinton to hold fast. They also include Mr. Clinton's and the Democratic Party's historic position in support of abortion rights. And they cover political intangibles, such as Mr. Clinton's reputation for abandoning his nominees once they face criticism from conservatives.
"A senior Democrat told me the administration feels they can't back down on this," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "But someone in the White House should tell Dr. Foster that he needs to pull out. It's the only way the president can get over it."
Ms. Kassebaum, who favors abortion rights and whose counsel the White House values on this issue, was said to feel the same way.
But in his speech at George Washington University -- and in other appearances yesterday -- quitting seemed the furthest thing from Dr. Foster's mind.
He reiterated his support "in the right of a woman to choose," but added: "I also support the president's belief that abortions should be 'safe, legal and rare.' The irony of the debate is my life's work has been dedicated to making sure that young people don't have to face the choice of abortions."
Earlier in the day, Dr. Foster stood with representatives of eight medical groups, as his fellow doctors lauded his record and urged his confirmation.
"His career should be celebrated, not defended," said Dr. Ralph W. Hale, executive director of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
In a 38-year career as a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist, Dr. Foster has delivered thousands of babies, taught at the university level, and formed a program in Nashville to reduce teen-age pregnancy that was cited as one of President George Bush's "1,000 points of light."
It was this issue -- combating teen-age pregnancy -- that Mr. Clinton wants Dr. Foster to address from the bully pulpit of the surgeon general's office. Previous surgeon generals have dealt with issues ranging from cigarette smoking to AIDS.
But Dr. Foster has also performed abortions, directed large-scale medical trials on drugs intended to make them easier to perform and publicly championed the rights of women to obtain them.
Opponents of abortion have been fighting his nomination on these grounds since it was announced a week ago. The bigger problem from the White House perspective is that both the nominee and administration officials have provided incomplete -- and constantly revised -- answers to questions about Dr. Foster's record regarding abortions.
At first, Health and Human Services officials told senators that he had performed one abortion in his career -- on a woman with AIDS. The next day, Dr. Foster and White House officials issued a correction, saying the accurate figure was "fewer than a dozen."
Then, after a check of his records, Dr. Foster said he had performed 39 abortions. He also presided over a study of an experimental drug that induced abortions in 55 of 60 women.
As if to further cloud the issue, in an interview on ABC-TV's "Nightline" earlier this week, Dr. Foster said, "I abhor abortion."
That remark managed to offend both abortion-rights supporters and opponents of abortion.
"It's just a brazen misconception of his record," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee Inc. "He's trying to rewrite his history."
"I think there's a litmus test here, but it's not abortion," said Sen. Daniel R. Coats, an anti-abortion Republican from Indiana. "And the litmus test is truth. At this point, the president and Dr. Foster's versions of the truth seem to be changing every day."
Abortion-rights advocates denounced such statements as a convenient excuse.
"This is not about credibility, veracity and process anymore -- this is a vote about the right to choose," said Kate Michelman, RTC president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.
She added that the opposition was driven by "a right-wing social agenda . . . to demonize doctors in an organized effort to make abortions unavailable."
One conservative, Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican who had been among the chief opponents of Dr. Elders, conceded that he would have fought the issue on abortion alone, but added, "The issue is credibility and abortion. . . . People don't like being misled."
But from the White House perspective, a more ominous sign came from Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, a moderate Republican who would be a pivotal vote on such a nomination.
"I just would like to know who we are confirming," she said. "Everybody agrees the administration has handled this abominably."