A Surgeon General's Warnings
I love the thing that was most precious to me in my professional life. Yet I think it was a very important statement to make at that time.
For eight years you have been sitting on the other side of the desk from the lobbyists. Do you have advice for people who want to affect the laws in this country? How could they do a more effective job?
What bothered me most, as I reflect, was the lack of scholarship by Christians—as if they felt that by leaning on a theological principle they didn't have to be very accurate with the facts.
People talk about knee-jerk liberals. The liberals have no corner on that market; I've learned there are also knee-jerk conservatives. Christians should be involved in politics, and use their Christian principles and ethics in that process. But they shouldn't jump over the process and voice their beliefs as the only possible outcome.
One of the problems with the prolife movement, for instance, is that they are 100-percenters. Historically it is true that if the prolife movement had sat down with the prochoice people in, say, 1970 or 1972, we might have ended up with abortion for a defective child, in cases of rape or incest, and to save the life of the mother, and nothing more. That would have saved 97 percent of the abortions since then. Ninety-seven percent of 15 million is a lot.
Often, when you were explaining your actions to religious leaders, you would say, "I am the surgeon general, not the chaplain general." Now that you're out of office, will that platform change?
Yes, it will. I will tackle issues that are not considered kosher for a government official to discuss. For example, I have concluded that adolescent sexual behavior will not change strictly by appealing to fear of consequences: "You may get a sexually transmitted disease or get pregnant." Teenagers are risk takers by nature; they don't like admonitions that begin with "Don't," and they don't think of serious health problems as applying to them.
I met a person from a behavioral institute in Switzerland who said, "We consider ourselves to be failures in changing the behavior of adolescents on the basis of education. What is your experienced?" I said, "The same as yours." He asked, "What is the answer?" I said we have to call in the authority of the Higher Power: We've got to call in morality and make a stronger case for ethics; and we have to return to religion.
Are you saying you'll take up the banner of sexual fidelity?
I think I have to. Because of my credibility, I have a marvelous opportunity to bring whole segments of this country around to a little different point of view. It would be wonderful to bring up a whole generation of preteenagers who are not sexually active and who are committed to sexual fidelity. But you don't do that in your very first lecture out of office. You take them a little bit of the way, gradually. I don't want to lose the pulpit I fought so hard to gain.
Your personal image—the beard, the uniform, and so on—played a big part in your gaining that "pulpit." How consciously did you go about fashioning your image?
I would love to be able to say, Koop stood back and looked at his challenge and he decided this, this, and that. The truth is, Koop stumbled into all these things. No doubt my beard is important to the image that grew up. But I grew this beard as a lark when I went with my son Norman to Israel for two weeks. They night before we came home he shaved off his beard and kept his mustache; I shaved off my mustache and kept my beard. We did it just to shock our families. A few days later, when I looked at a picture of myself taken in Naples before I started growing a beard, I realized I had three chins! And I didn't have them with a beard.