In Tuskegee, Foster is remembered as anything but an 'abortion doctor'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TUSKEGEE, Ala. -- Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. saved the life of the mayor's infant son. He talked a scared and confused Joyce German out of an abortion. He ran a network of prenatal clinics that persuaded young, poor women to abandon their midwives. And he delivered babies.

"Oh, the babies," recalled his nurse, Thelma Walker-Brown. "Lots of babies. Babies. Babies. Babies."

He was just out of medical school when he came to Tuskegee. Young, ambitious, trained in modern medicine. Among the poor, the uneducated and the sick living on the red clay soil of east-central Alabama, among the women who didn't know or couldn't afford to call a doctor, Dr. Foster was the best they had.

This was Alabama in the 1960s, a time and a place unlike the world today, long before the president of the United States would summon Dr. Foster to become the nation's surgeon general.

So great is the contrast between the political maelstrom of Washington and this community -- and what Dr. Foster meant to it -- that people in Tuskegee find it hard to grasp how the life of the "Dr. Hank" they grew to respect could be reduced to a question of how many abortions he may have performed in three decades of medical practice.

Indeed, the portrait of the young doctor that emerges in the recollections of old colleagues and others here serves as a sharp example of just how tortured the nation's struggle over abortion has become.

He is remembered in Tuskegee as the town "baby doctor" who, before Roe vs. Wade, performed abortions only in the rarest emergency of having to save a mother's life. He was not, as former colleague Dr. Thomas Calhoun said, "an abortionist who works in an abortion clinic and all he does is abortions, and is the guy the political right is out to get."

In the politics of this issue today, such distinctions tend to lose any meaning. Since Dr. Foster first acknowledged doing a small number of abortions, and later revised his estimate to 39, his chances of winning confirmation in the Senate next month have been in grave doubt.

Opponents do not argue that Dr. Foster did nothing good; those for whom abortion is an issue of uncompromisable morality believe that he was part of one thing so bad that nothing else matters. And some contend that the Clinton White House's bungling -- particularly its failure to give an accurate, forthright account of Dr. Foster's record at the outset -- has contaminated the nomination process beyond repair.

Those arguments may be the ones that determine Dr. Foster's fate as a candidate for surgeon general.

But they seem remote to those who remember how he labored to open the rural poor to preventive medicine. How, through his satellite clinics and other outreach programs, Alabama women learned to take better care of themselves and their unborn children.

When Dr. Foster was back in Tuskegee last year to address a conference on rural health care, he reflected on the work he had done.

"I spent nine years of my life here in this most unique community," he said. "We were ahead of our time."

A native of Pine Bluff, Ark., who served in the Air Force as a medical officer, Dr. Foster came here in 1964 as the lone obstetrician-gynecologist at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital -- a 180-bed, three-story brick facility on the campus of Tuskegee University.

He was a black doctor serving a black population. Tuskegee was about 87 percent black, (as it remains today) and the vast majority of cottonseed farmers and loggers in the surrounding Tuskegee National Forest east of Montgomery, Ala., were also black.

The median income when Dr. Foster arrived here was less than $2,500 a year. In the five-county rural area, families went without electricity, telephones and, in some cases, running water. When they didn't have jobs or education, how could you tell them modern health care was important?

Dr. Foster took over from Dr. Joseph Mitchell, whom townspeople remember as overworked and stressed and who one day died of a heart attack.

"So Dr. Foster came in and he had all these pressures and he said he wanted to do it all," Ms. Walker-Brown said. "He said he was young and he could do it all."

His average caseload ran into the hundreds. He sometimes delivered three babies a day. In truth, the number of infants delivered under Dr. Foster's care cannot be counted.

Louis Rabb, administrator of the hospital before it closed in 1987 -- when too many charity cases finally drained its resources -- remembered: "It was a tremendous number of babies. Probably thousands of them."

Against this backdrop was the matter of race. The local hospital served only whites, except for a few black emergency patients that it took in and assigned to rooms normally used as closets. So the John A. Andrew Hospital became the medical center for Alabama blacks.

When people in Tuskegee remember the good that Dr. Foster tried to accomplish here, it becomes all the more troubling when they see the furor that has arisen over his selection as surgeon general.

His uncle, William B. Hill, a 90-year-old retired farm extension service agent, saw his nephew come to Tuskegee and move on, and said he cannot understand what people would want in a surgeon general if not someone like Dr. Foster. Nor can his wife, 92-year-old Sadie Hill.

"We were all real poor people when Hank was here," Mrs. Hill said. "We were just people who needed help. He helped us."

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