.- President Barack Obama has announced that he is nominating a rural Alabama Catholic doctor to be the U.S. Surgeon General. Reacting to the news, the rector of Mobileâs Catholic cathedral, where she serves as lector, is encouraging her to defend the unborn in her new position.
In a Monday statement President Obama said he intended to nominate Dr. Regina Benjamin as Surgeon General, the United States governmentâs âchief health educator.â The presidentâs announcement focused on health care reform as an urgent challenge.
Dr. Benjamin, the first black woman to be admitted to the American Medical Association, founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Alabama in 1990. There, she served the poor Alabama community on the Gulf Coast after 1998âs Hurricane Georges and 2005âs Hurricane Katrina.
She had to rebuild the clinic after it burned down, receiving a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation âgenius grantâ in 2008 for the effort.
Dr. Benjamin is known as being a national leader in improving health disparities, motivated by the need in her community. Immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos make up a third of the areaâs population of 2,500.
She received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 1998. Pope Benedict XVI awarded her the Pro Ecclessia et Pontifice medal in 2006.
President Obamaâs announcement also noted that Dr. Benjamin received the 2000 National Caring Award which was inspired by Mother Teresa.
The nominee graduated from Xavier University in New Orleans, a Catholic school descended from the educational work of St. Katharine Drexel. Dr. Benjamin received her medical degree from the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
Dr. Benjamin has also served on the Board of Trustees for the Catholic Health Association, a position that she will resign from to take on her new job.
In a Monday statement, CHA president and chief executive officer Sister Carol Keehan, DC, said that the organization ârejoices for our nationâ in Dr. Benjaminâs nomination.
âIn Dr. Benjamin, we have a brilliant physician who understands health care, nationally and internationally; but even more important, she knows the health care needs of the people of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, who she meets on a daily basis.â
Sr. Keehan said the nominee will âenrich the nationâ with her competence and integrity and she praised Dr. Benjaminâs daily experience working in âa very vulnerable committee.â
CNA spoke with Msgr. Michael L. Farmer, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Mobile and rector at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile.
Msgr. Farmer said Dr. Benjamin is a âdelightful ladyâ who has served as lector at the cathedral and has been âreadily availableâ to speak with various Catholic organizations. She has also worked with Catholic Charities in Mobile and has spoken on the good the organization does.
He reported that she grew up at the historically African-American parish Shrine of the Holy Cross in the Gulf Coast town of Daphne, Alabama.
The monsignor also confirmed that then-Archbishop of Mobile Oscar Lipscomb recommended Dr. Regina Benjamin for the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award. The medal is bestowed to lay people and clergy who have given zealous and outstanding service to the Church. The honor was instituted by Pope Leo XIII in 1888.
âHe recommended her for her example in her Catholic faith as well as in her medical profession,â Msgr. Farmer said, noting the âamazing amount of workâ she has done for the common good and for health care in south Mobile County.
Expressing certainty that Dr. Benjamin had opportunities to go elsewhere, he said the doctor had made a âconcrete decisionâ to remain in Alabama and address her patientsâ needs.
âSheâs noted not only for clinic work, but for going on site to these peopleâs homes. And theyâre not necessarily the nicest places to go to.â
He said it was âremarkableâ and âbridge-buildingâ that Dr. Benjamin, an African-American woman, has done her work in the bayou, which he described as a majority white community with âa lot of poor people in it.â
Given the appointments and policy decisions of the Obama Administration that favor the promotion of abortion, CNA asked Msgr. Farmer if he knew what Dr. Benjamin's position is on abortion. He explained that he did not âexplicitlyâ know Dr. Benjaminâs position on abortion and other life issues and had never discussed it with her.
âI would hope that her position would be in line with the Churchâs position,â he told CNA. âAs far as I know she has been in conformity with the Catholic Church.â
âI would hope that that would continue,â he added, noting that it could be âdifficultâ to adhere to Catholic moral teaching in a position with the Obama Administration.
In a Monday morning telephone interview with CNA, Sr. Keehan pointed out that Dr. Benjamin isn't âin a specialty that would do abortionâ and that her work to provide health care to the poor and elderly demonstrates her âtremendous attention to the issue of life.â
âAnd you've got her own archbishop who asked the Holy Father to give her the Pro Ecclesia medal.
âYou don't get that for just being a token Catholic,â she told CNA.
In December 2008 a coalition of several dozen pro-abortion groups released a strategy document titled âAdvancing Reproductive Rights and Health in a New Administrationâ calling on Obama to improve access to âabortion care.â The document named the surgeon generalâs office as a âposition of interest.â