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Then & Now: Joycelyn Elders

Joycelyn Elders speaks to the press as U.S. surgeon general in 1993.



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(CNN) -- As the first black U.S. surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders did not shy away from politically sensitive subjects such as teen sexuality, abortion and legalization of drugs.

In 1994, she became a lightning rod for criticism after she said schools should consider teaching masturbation to students as a means to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. The Clinton appointee was forced to resign from her position after 15 months in office.

"If I had to do it all over again today, I would do it the same way," she told CNN in a recent interview. "I felt I did it right the first time."

Today, Elders continues to speak around the country on public health and sex education, but she said the high-profile political battle in the 1990s left her bruised.

"I told someone, 'I went to Washington feeling like prime steak, and I left feeling like low-grade hamburger,' " she said.

Born Minnie Lee Jones (she later took the name Joycelyn) in 1933, Elders grew up poor in the farming community of Schaal, Arkansas. Her father was a sharecropper, and Elders spent time picking cotton with her seven siblings when she wasn't attending an all-black school.

The family's home had no running water, and Elders never saw a doctor until she was in college.

"One of my earliest memories concerning the lack of health care was [of] my 4-year-old brother, who had a ruptured appendix and was taken to the doctor more than 10 miles away on the back of a mule. His abdomen was lanced, a drain placed, and he was sent home. I have heard my mother scream during difficult child deliveries without any medical help," she told a Senate committee in her 1993 confirmation statement.

Elders enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1953 and worked as a physical therapist in the Army Medical Specialist Corps, treating returning wounded from the Korean War and at one time helping President Eisenhower recover after a heart attack.

With the help of the GI Bill of Rights, she graduated from the University of Arkansas medical school in 1960 and later earned a master's degree in biochemistry.

In 1987, Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, called on her to become the state's director of public health. Elders began initiating aggressive campaigns to reduce teen pregnancy by making birth control and sex education more readily available to teenagers. She also widened the scope of HIV testing and counseling in the state.

In 1993, President Clinton appointed her as the nation's surgeon general, and her agenda was ambitious.

"I went to Washington, not to get that job but to do that job," Elders said. "I wanted to do something about the problems that I saw out there that were happening in our country. I wanted to do something to make sure that all people had access to health care. I wanted to do something to reduce teenage pregnancies and begin to address the needs of our adolescents."

As surgeon general, she advocated universal health care and comprehensive health and sex education, but some of her comments -- such as her remarks about masturbation -- enraged conservatives.

"Our country talked about masturbation more in December of 1994 than they ever have in the history of the country, and you know, people would think you'd be embarrassed about that," Elders told CNN in 1996. "I'm not embarrassed about that."

The former surgeon general continues to be vocal and controversial in her campaigns to improve public health. She gives speeches across the nation and remains an outspoken advocate of sex education and women's health issues.

"It makes no sense that the richest country in the world can't take better care of its women," she said. "And we all know that the health and wealth of a nation is directly related to the health and education of its women."

Elders, who will be 72 in August, lives with her husband, Oliver, in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she enjoys time in her garden. The mother of two grown men is also a semi-retired professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas. In 1997, she published a book about her life, "From Sharecropper's Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States," more memoir than political tell-all.

"If I could make any changes at all to the current health care system, you know I would start with education, education, education," Elders said. "You can't educate people that are not healthy. But you certainly can't keep them healthy if they're not educated."

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