Save the Children Endorses Bad Medicine with Dr. Bill Frist
The non-governmental organization Save the Children has rightly earned a reputation for bringing the best practices in sustainable development and family health care to developing nations around the world. But in selecting Dr. Bill Frist as its front-man for its new "Survive to 5" campaign against childhood mortality, Save the Children has chosen the wrong prescription.
The global Survive to 5 initiative is a laudable and natural extension to Save the Children's historic commitment to battling infant mortality. Preventable diseases, especially malaria and respiratory infections, claim up to 10 million young lives each year and produce infant mortality rates as high as 20% in sub-Saharan Africa. Save the Children's low cost, reproducible projects from vaccination campaigns and distribution of mosquito nets to training and education programs for village women have had a marked impact in improving the prospects for children.
But even with his past, high-profile efforts on behalf of children in the developing world, Dr. Bill Frist brings a lot of baggage to his latest crusade. As he showed repeatedly while Majority Leader, Senator Bill Frist was never shy about subverting medicine and science for political purposes.
The case of Terri Schiavo provides but one case in point. During the height of the intense battle over Michael Schiavo's effort to honor his wife's wishes in March 2005, Doctor Frist took to the Senate floor to offer his own videotape diagnosis, Disputing assessments that Schiavo was in a permanent vegetative state (a diagnosis later confirmed by autopsy), Frist declared:
"I question it based on a review of the video footage which I spent an hour or so looking at last night in my office," he said in a lengthy speech in which he quoted medical texts and standards. "She certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli."
A surprised and concerned Laurie Zoloth, director of bioethics for the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University, noted of Doctor Frist's statements, "It is extremely unusual -- and by a non-neurologist, I might add. There should be no confusion about the medical data, and that's what was so surprising to me about Dr. Frist disagreeing about her medical status." Democratic strategist Marshall Wittman was much less charitable:
"I suspect that Senator Frist has his eye more on the Iowa caucus than the Hippocratic Oath."
Frist's perversion of science for partisan political ends hardly starts - or ends - there. The previous December, Senator Frist tried to defend a federally-funded abstinence program which claimed that HIV/AIDS could be contracted through tears and sweat. Pressed by ABC News host George Stephanopoulos, Frist was forced to recant. "It would be very hard," he said. In 2003, Frist fast-tracked a House version of President Bush's $15 billion AIDS bill that incorporated religious amendments funding abstinence programs and barring condom distribution by faith-based groups.
Frist's political uses of science cut both ways. In 2001, Senator Frist strongly supported President Bush's draconian curbs on stem cell research But in the wake of his disastrous intervention in the Schiavo case, would-be presidential candidate Frist decided discretion was the better part of valor and switched sides. After his Schiavo debacle, Frist no doubt concluded the reversal on stem cells was necessary for the 2008 general election; calling him a "sell-out" and "Dr. Duplicity", his former friends on the religious right made it clear he would never survive the GOP primaries.
Doctor Frist's dubious medical ethics both predated and followed his time in elected office. As a student, Frist was a frequent visitor to animal shelters where the future Doctor adopted cats only to dissect them later as part of his learn-at-home medical studies. Later, Senator Frist's World of Hope faith-based charity may have won awards for its work on AIDS, but its fundraising also filled the coffers of many of Frist's closest associates. And in 2007, Frist narrowly avoided insider trading charges in connection with his sale of stock from the HCA business started by his father and brother.
In the aftermath of Frist's Senate floor witness malpractice regarding Terri Schiavo, Democratic strategist Jim Jordan noted, "It'd be hilarious if it weren't so grotesque, how his presidential ambitions and pandering to the right wing is clashing with his life's work."
Alas, Save the Children is now letting the quackery of Dr. Bill Frist tarnish its good works.
(Full disclosure: I knew staffers of and in a volunteer capacity occasionally helped Save the Children with work on projects during my time in The Gambia from 1987 to 1989.)