Dr. Joycelyn Elders, a Champion of Teen Sexual and Reproductive Health

EldersIn honor of Black History Month, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona would like to recognize an outstanding and inspiring black woman who championed adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights: Dr. Joycelyn Elders. Dr. Elders served as surgeon general to the United States under President Bill Clinton, and famously said, “I want every child born in America to be a planned and wanted child.”

She started her life in rural Arkansas, picking cotton to help support her family, and in 1978, she became Arkansas’ first board-certified pediatric endocrinologist. Dr. Elders’ work in endocrinology is what first piqued her interest in adolescent sexual health — some of her young patients, such as young girls with diabetes, would face serious health risks if they were to become pregnant.

Dr. Joycelyn Elders is an inspiring, passionate, and outspoken advocate for sexual and reproductive health and justice

In 1987, Dr. Elders became the director of the Arkansas health department. In this role, Dr. Elders championed an initiative that required sex education in the K-12 curriculum. She also aggressively campaigned to make birth control more readily available, particularly for teens, widened the state’s HIV testing and counseling programs, and advocated for greater access to abortion.

Then, in 1993, Dr. Joycelyn Elders became the first African-American and only the second female surgeon general. In an interview, Dr. Elders stated that her No. 1 priority for her tenure as surgeon general was to “to do something about unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.”

Throughout her term, Dr. Elders advocated for progressive, controversial, and life-saving public health programs. She supported researching the impact of distributing contraceptives in schools, giving free birth control to sex workers, and advertising condoms on television: “Not only through advertisements,” she stated, in a 1993 speech to the National Press Club, “but also through appropriate discussion during the hundreds of bedroom scenes aired daily during prime time can we ‘socially market’ the most life-saving instrument readily available to Americans today.” Suffice to say, Dr. Elders was despised by many anti-choice and abstinence-only proponents.

Then, at a United Nations conference on HIV/AIDS, on December 1, 1994, an audience member asked Dr. Elders about the viability of teaching masturbation to reduce HIV infection rates. Dr. Elders replied, “I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we’ve not taught our children the very basics.” Her statement enraged several political pundits, who called for her dismissal. Eight days later, the Clinton administration forced Dr. Elders to resign as surgeon general, just 15 months into her term. More than a decade later, however, Dr. Elders told CNN, “If I had to do it all over again today, I would do it the same way.”

To this day, Dr. Elders remains an outspoken advocate for adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights. She continues to tour the country, speaking about the importance of adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights. Recently, she coauthored an article with other surgeons general, in which she criticized the federal government for their massive funding for abstinence-only education programs, even though federally funded evaluations showed that those programs “have no impact on delaying sexual initiation or reducing the risk for unintended pregnancy, HIV, or other STDs.” Disturbingly, these programs were legally required to omit critical information about condoms and contraception.

Dr. Joycelyn Elders is an inspiring, passionate, and outspoken advocate for sexual and reproductive health and justice, and we at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona thank her for her dedication to this cause.