Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Dr. Koop: Like the Wise Man Who Built His House on Rock
In an opinion piece written earlier this week for the Washington Post, Michael Gerson wrote about the connection between a child in Mississippi, born with an HIV infection, who was apparently cured by early and aggressive treatment, and former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, who recently died at the age of 96. The old doctor would have been “as pleased as anyone,” he wrote, by “the news about a blessed child in Mississippi.
Dr. Koop was one of the first and most effective forces in the struggle to combat the AIDS epidemic that began in the early 1980’s. That battle will be Koop’s lasting legacy, but his endeavors came as a surprise to both the supporters and the opponents of his nomination as the nation’s physician.
His supporters were thrilled that President Reagan had nominated a deeply faithful pro-life Christian. And his detractors were, for the most part, opposed for the very same reasons.
In one of several editorials questioning the appointment, the New York Times stated flatly, “The nomination is a disservice not only to the Public Health Service and the public itself, but also to Dr. Koop. He is being honored for the most cynical of reasons–not for his medical skills but for his political compatibility.”
Gerson writes, “I was in high school when I first saw Koop, who was delivering a pro-life lecture. A combination of impressive facial hair and thundering moral certainty gave him the aspect of a Hebrew prophet. He was actually a committed evangelical Christian. His appointment by President Ronald Reagan occasioned a serious case of the vapors among liberals. Koop was attacked as scary, intolerant and unqualified.”
In the 1950s, Dr. Koop had been a pioneer in pediatric surgery. He specialized in the correction of congenital birth defects. And it was his dedicated commitment to the most fragile newborn infants that led him to take up the cause of the unborn. He was dedicated to caring for the most vulnerable and helpless.
Shortly after becoming the surgeon general, he launched public health campaigns against smoking, domestic violence and preventable violence. In the days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, when others in the Reagan administration were proposing mandatory testing, tattooing, and even internment camps, Dr. Koop became a voice of compassion and concern. In the “Surgeon General’s Report on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” Koop provided a comprehensive and explicit description of exactly how the disease could be transmitted. He stated the case with moral and scientific clarity. In direct response to those who wanted to demonize the gay community, he declared, “We are fighting a disease, not people.”
Gerson notes that, when the document was distributed, “with its precise anatomical details and recommendations of condom use and early sex education — it was the turn of conservatives for the vapors. But Koop further conspired to have a brochure containing similar information distributed to the entire IRS mailing list of 107 million households.”
Those who believe that Dr. Koop’s moral views underwent a dramatic change after he took office, or that he chose the path he did in spite of his faith, are missing the central point of his life. It was all one piece. As he observed, “My whole career had been dedicated to prolonging lives, especially the lives of people who were weak and powerless, the disenfranchised who needed an advocate: newborns who needed surgery, handicapped children, unborn children . . .people with AIDS.”
Dr. Koop was one of those surprisingly wonderful people who heard Jesus’ teachings and internalized them and actually lived them out.