Readers of this blog no doubt noticed yesterday’s new that Dr. C. Everett Koop—pediatric surgeon, advocate for children born and unborn, public servant, and disciple of Christ—has departed this world. He was 96—old and full of years. I never met him. I knew people who knew him. At a distance, I found it a duty to respect and admire him.
Among the public, I suppose he will be best remembered for three things:
First, his opposition to abortion. My generation of culture warriors rallied around his work with Francis Schaeffer on Whatever Happened to the Human Race? He called amniocentesis “a search and destroy mission.” I don’t recall him speaking recently, very late in his life, about the abuses of PGD, but I’m sure they fit the same criticism. I think it best to see his pro-life stance not politically, but in the context of his calling as a doctor and his consequent advocacy for children in general. As I recall, he fought those who would have let die infants who could be saved for a full, normal life by the surgical techniques he pioneered.
Second, his battle against smoking and tobacco use in general. I recall reading a comment by Dr. Kessler, when as FDA Commissioner he was making the first push to bring cigarettes under FDA regulation, that Dr. Koop had urged him to press that fight to the fullest. It’s always seemed to me that if you have “M.D.” after your name you really have to sympathize with that push. It did raise the [ongoing] question of where the boundary of government paternalism ought to be drawn. In retrospect, tobacco looks to me like “low-hanging fruit,” an easy target. Alcohol? Caffeine? Marijuana? Calories? I am tempted to speculate how a current Surgeon General Koop, at the full height of his powers, would weigh in (no pun intended w/r/t calories) about these—but I’ll keep those speculations private.
Third, and most famously, his aggressive approach to address the emerging AIDS epidemic. I look back on those efforts as Koop the physician speaking, out of the compassion of his calling, to arrest the spread of a devastating disease. Seen that way, condom use and early sex education were critical means to an important end. (I would, however, prefer parents, rather than government, doing the latter.) And to withhold condemnation of a person is not to condone what he does. Sometimes, a physician has to forego or at least delay challenging a patient’s behavior. We all recognize this as a joke: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this. Well, don’t do that.” At the same time, every doctor has patients who need to be told, forcefully, to quit this or that behavior, for their own good. Mercy and wisdom are needed for those conversations.
The headline in The Wall Street Journal was execrable: “The Public’s Health Trumped His Beliefs.” Nonsense. When your core belief is to follow The Great Physician, there is no fundamental conflict. Difficult decisions about conflicting duties, yes. Self-effacement when necessary? Sure. Data over principles? No way—the issue is truth and wisdom in the service of moral principles and values.
R.I.P., C. Everett Koop, M.D.—or, should I say, “R.I.G.”