In 1981, shortly after taking office, President Ronald Reagan nominated Dr. C. Everett Koop for the position of surgeon general. Though largely unknown to the general public, Dr. Koop had gained a reputation within medical circles for his innovations in pediatric surgery. And he also had some cache within conservative and right-to-life circles because of his writings against abortion, which were informed by his conservative Presbyterian beliefs. Reaganite conservatives salivated at the chance of getting “one of their own” in charge of the nation’s healthcare, someone, they felt, who would lead the charge against Roe v. Wade and end abortion in the United States.
Conversely, liberals and progressives groaned. Dr. Koop seemed like yet another in the pantheon of conservative ideologues (James Watt, Jeane Kirkpatrick, etc.) trotted out by the nascent Administration to foster and promote far right conservative values nationwide. He even looked the part. With his large frame, thick white beard, and clean-shaven upper lip, he looked like the reincarnation of a long lost ancient biblical seaman. Democrats in the Senate gave him quite a grilling. Senator Ted Kennedy called his attitudes about abortion “patronizing” towards women. The New York Times labeled him “Dr. Unqualified.” In the end, though, the ancient biblical seaman-looking dude passed confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate with a vote of 68 to 24.
And then, they were all fooled.
Though personally a conservative with strong moral convictions, Dr. Koop quickly demonstrated that professionally, as a doctor, a scientist, and as surgeon general, he was first and last a man dedicated to science and public health. And he would not use his office as a bully pulpit to further causes dear to conservatives’ hearts at the expense of science and healthcare needs.
Instead, Dr. Koop set himself upon his first task: to tell Americans to stop smoking so damn much. Politicians from tobacco-growing states were aghast, but Dr. Koop didn’t care. He saw too many people dying from smoking-related causes such as heart disease and lung cancer. His anti-smoking campaign raised awareness and many states enacted laws restricting where one could light up as a result. The New York Times states that when he entered office, 33% of Americans smoked; by the time he left office in 1989, the number had dropped to 26%.
Dr. Koop was not a firebrand, pro-gay rights kind of guy. But that didn’t stop him from speaking out about the dangers of HIV disease. He grew frustrated with the Reagan Administration’s fealty to conservatism, which he felt delayed needed action on the then-growing health menace. He finally won out and issued an unprecedented and ground-breaking report about AIDS and how not to get it to everyone in the nation. Though morally he opposed sex before marriage, he nonetheless did not hide under the rock of “abstinence only” and urged those who engaged in sexual activity to use condoms. He even said that 8th graders needed to learn about safe-sex practices. Conservatives fainted. ACT-UPers chanted his name enthusiastically when he spoke.
In the waning days of the administration, President Reagan asked his Surgeon General to do a report on the health effects of abortion on women. The year was 1988 and President Reagan clearly wanted to throw a bone to the anti-abortion crowd for the sake of his legacy. Dr. Koop took on the task reluctantly, but pursued the matter in standard scientific fashion with a thorough investigation. He interviewed experts as well as those for and against abortion.
His report famously concluded that he could find no scientific evidence to support that abortions had either a positive or negative impact on the health and well-being of women. Conservatives had a fit. “Betrayal! Betrayal!” they screamed. He betrayed petty, political expectations, perhaps, but not science.
When George H.W. Bush was elected president in 1988, Dr. Koop had hoped to be named as Secretary of Health and Human Services. But politics triumphed and President Bush appointed Dr. Louis Sullivan instead. Dr. Sullivan’s policies towards AIDS would anger the activist community and he was roundly booed and shutdown from speaking at the International AIDS convention in San Francisco in 1990. I was there. It was loud.
Dr. Koop was never treated in such a manner by progressives or activists. He had, in fact, become a hero, a beacon of truth in an ideologue ridden administration. And he became a hero not by changing his beliefs, but by not being a slave to them. His dedication to science and human heath would not allow that. He spoke the truth even when it was politically unpopular to do so, and that put him in the company of giants like Galileo and Copernicus.
Today, conservatives routinely disregard anything that does not comport with their world view. Their dismissal of science is frightening. A C. Everett Koop would never have been appointed to anything by a President McCain or a President Romney. These men, and the party they led as presidential candidates, swore allegiance only to conservatism, damn the facts. Dr. Koop represented something different.
Conservatives would do well to embrace the thinking of the late Dr. Koop and follow his example of truth over ideology.
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