Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The world could use a Pope with the moral clarity of former surgeon general C. Everett Koop

Dr. C. Everett Koop understood that right and wrong aren't always clear. Chosen by Ronald Reagan for his conservative beliefs, which he never abandoned, he ended up saving many innocent lives by pushing sex education and condom use, and talking openly about AIDS. He believed his first moral obligation was to protect the health of Americans.

If the next pope is able to think as deeply about right and wrong, it will indeed be a blessing to the world.

The Public's Health Trumped His Beliefs
February 25, 2013

He declared war on smoking, helped remove the stigma from AIDS and pioneered the use of the office of surgeon general as a megaphone for addressing Americans about health.

Dr. C. Everett Koop, who died Monday at age 96, was an evangelical Christian who espoused conservative social values. But as the U.S.'s top public-health official, he promoted positions more commonly associated with liberals, such as condom use and sex education.

Nominated for the office by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Dr. Koop was known as a crusading abortion opponent. In the 1970s, he toured the country presenting the antiabortion film "Whatever Happened to the Human Race?"

The National Organization for Women opposed his nomination. U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) called him "Dr. Kook" and said the doctor was "a man of tremendous intolerance." Dr. Koop himself once told Life magazine, "I think I scare most people."

But conservatives welcomed him, and Republican Sen. Jesse Helms sponsored legislation letting the New York native serve despite being over the position's 64-year-old age limit. During a lengthy confirmation battle, Dr. Koop pledged not to use his office as an antiabortion soapbox.

Despite lacking a background in public health, Dr. Koop kicked off his eight years in office with a report that labeled cigarette smoking "the most important public health issue of our time." He warned of the dangers of secondhand smoke and pushed for a smokeless society.

Commenting on the Newport cigarette "Alive With Pleasure" advertising campaign, he said, "Truth in advertising would demand the slogan 'Dying in Agony' instead." The crusade alienated some of his biggest backers, including Mr. Helms of the tobacco-growing state of North Carolina.

On AIDS, Dr. Koop initially was muzzled by the White House, which kept him off an early AIDS task force and forbade him to make public statements about the newly discovered disease.

In 1986, he issued a frank report on AIDS, urging the use of condoms for "safe sex" and advocating sex education as early as the third grade. When a summary of the report was mailed to 100 million homes, James McFadden of the Ad Hoc Committee in Defense of Life complained, "Here is a guy who looks like an Old Testament prophet—who ever would have imagined that he'd end up selling the gospel of sodomy?"

Dr. Koop disappointed some in 1989 when, as surgeon general, he refused to endorse any conclusion about the psychological effects of abortions. "I had not wavered at all in my pro-life stand," he wrote in his memoir, "Koop." "The real problem, of course, was that too many women have unwanted pregnancies."

Before becoming the nation's chief doctor, Dr. Koop was famed for separating conjoined twins at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where he was surgeon-in-chief for three decades.

Dr. Koop wrote that he aspired to be a surgeon from the time he was a boy, even sneaking into a hospital to watch surgery at age 15 while posing as a medical student. Curious to learn more, he did operations on rabbits and stray cats, with his mother acting as anesthetist. After graduating from Cornell Medical College in 1941, Dr. Koop opted for the then-unusual specialty of pediatric surgery. He developed new techniques for correcting congenital heart defects and underdeveloped esophaguses.

Dr. Koop retired in 1989, before his second term as surgeon general had expired. He helped create the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth College and the short-lived drkoop.com. In 1995, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

His most lasting legacy was the AIDS battle, where he alienated his original constituency to fulfill what he said was his obligation as a physician. "It is time to put self-defeating attitudes aside and recognize that we are fighting a disease—not people," Dr. Koop said in 1986.

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