Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer
Thirty years ago, long before the tired phrase “political correctness” had become the most overworked cliche of the culture wars, a physician named Koop was face to face with it.
His ultimate refusal to yield to it remains one of the all-time great triumphs of public health.
C. Everett Koop was President Ronald Reagan’s choice for U.S. surgeon general in 1981, and served in that post through Reagan’s two terms and into President George H.W. Bush’s administration. In that time, he raised the profile of that office to a prominence it had seldom if ever known before. In so doing, he sustained political and cultural battle scars, and earned every one of them.
Koop, who died Monday at 96, was a complex man whose public career might on the surface seem contradictory, but perhaps shouldn’t. His nomination was opposed by liberals; his performance in office was condemned by conservatives. A lifelong opponent of abortion, he would not issue a White House report that said abortion was psychologically harmful to women because he said the science wasn’t there to support it. A former pipe smoker, he became the nation’s foremost foe of tobacco. (Smoking rates declined from 38 percent to 27 percent during his tenure in office.) A devout Presbyterian who sometimes prayed at patients’ bedsides, he refused to use his office or his bully pulpit for ideological purposes.
Most significantly, Koop was a social and political conservative who believed homosexuality and non-marital sex immoral — but who, when faced with the public health threat of AIDS, set a tone of unprecedented clinical frankness in how to arrest its spread. He advocated practical, explicit sex education and more widespread use of condoms; indeed, C. Everett Koop is almost singlehandedly responsible for moving the word “condom” out of the realm of snickers and stigma, and into the realm of public policy.
That frankness drew fierce cultural and political fire (social activist Phyllis Schlafly publicly condemned Koop for advocating “sodomy”), and put pressure on the president to fire or muzzle his surgeon general — neither of which Reagan would do.
Koop’s service in the cause of public health didn’t end with his leaving public office. “I will use the written word, the spoken word and whatever I can in the electronic media to deliver health messages to this country as long as people will listen,” he said shortly after resigning his post. He chaired the National Safe Kids Campaign and served as a health care adviser to President Bill Clinton. He created an institute at Dartmouth, his undergraduate alma mater, for the teaching of medical values and ethics.
We often debate the lines between church and state. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop had the clinical integrity and moral courage to draw new lines between morality and medicine, without sacrificing his dedication to either.