On this day in 1994, U.S. President Bill Clinton fired U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders for controversial comments she made regarding human sexuality. Her tenure was the shortest of any Surgeon General, other than those serving in an acting capacity.
Elders was effective. As Director of the Arkansas Department of Health, she led a substantial increase in the number of annual early childhood screenings and almost doubled the immunization rate for two-year-olds. However, she was also controversial, advocating for contraceptives to be distributed in schools and the possibility of legalizing drugs.
After being confirmed as Surgeon General in September of 1993, Elders got into hot water by suggesting that drug legalization could possibly reduce crime and should be studied. In January of 1994, she said, “We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus and start worrying about children.” The final straw came when she spoke at the United Nations on AIDS and was asked if promoting masturbation would prevent teens from engaging in riskier sexual activity. Elders replied, “I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.” She was fired and served through the end of 1994.
Elders is currently professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. She still continues to speak out on the issues that brought her under fire as Surgeon General.