Obama nominates rural Catholic doctor as Surgeon General

Obama nominates rural Catholic doctor as Surgeon General

Dr. Regina Benjamin / President Obama
Dr. Regina Benjamin / President Obama

.- 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 Mobile’s 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 government’s “chief health educator.” The president’s 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 1998’s Hurricane Georges and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

She had to rebuild the clinic after it burned down, receiving a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” 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 area’s 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 Obama’s 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 “rejoices for our nation” in Dr. Benjamin’s nomination.

“In 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.”

Sr. Keehan said the nominee will “enrich the nation” with her competence and integrity and she praised Dr. Benjamin’s daily experience working in “a very vulnerable committee.”

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 “delightful lady” who has served as lector at the cathedral and has been “readily available” 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.

“He recommended her for her example in her Catholic faith as well as in her medical profession,” Msgr. Farmer said, noting the “amazing amount of work” 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 “concrete decision” to remain in Alabama and address her patients’ needs.

“She’s noted not only for clinic work, but for going on site to these people’s homes. And they’re not necessarily the nicest places to go to.”

He said it was “remarkable” and “bridge-building” that Dr. Benjamin, an African-American woman, has done her work in the bayou, which he described as a majority white community with “a lot of poor people in it.”

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 “explicitly” know Dr. Benjamin’s position on abortion and other life issues and had never discussed it with her.

“I would hope that her position would be in line with the Church’s position,” he told CNA. “As far as I know she has been in conformity with the Catholic Church.”

“I would hope that that would continue,” he added, noting that it could be “difficult” 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  “in a specialty that would do abortion” and that her work to provide health care to the poor and elderly demonstrates her “tremendous attention to the issue of life.”

“And you've got her own archbishop who asked the Holy Father to give her the Pro Ecclesia medal.

“You don't get that for just being a token Catholic,” she told CNA.

In December 2008 a coalition of several dozen pro-abortion groups released a strategy document titled “Advancing Reproductive Rights and Health in a New Administration” calling on Obama to improve access to “abortion care.” The document named the surgeon general’s office as a “position of interest.”