Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop—known for his medical advocacy and his evangelical Christian faith—died today at age 96. This profile, originally published in CT's October 20, 1989, issue, was published shortly after Koop resigned from the Department of Health and Human Services.
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In the first of a two-part series, CT's editor at large recounts the setbacks and triumphs of C. Everett Koop's eight-year term as U .S. Surgeon General. Part 2, an interview to appear in the next issue, will present Koop's own words about his concerns as he returns to private life.
In three decades of surgery at Philadelphia's Children's Hospital, C. Everett Koop pioneered techniques that saved the lives of premature and malformed babies. Meanwhile, in another wing of the hospital an abortion clinic opened, capable of eliminating 10 to 15 lives in the time it took Koop to save 1 or 2. Abortion increasingly became for Koop a simple, black-and-white issue. When he finally spoke out on abortion, he spoke with conviction, calling the Roe v. Wade ruling "the most important event in American history since the Civil War."
For a time Koop even suspended his brilliant career in pediatric surgery to go on the stump with L'Abri founder Francis Schaeffer. In a dramatic scene from the Schaeffer-produced film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race? Koop looked out on a thousand naked dolls strewn across the salt wastes of the Dead Sea and proclaimed, "I am standing on the site of Sodom, the place of evil and death."
Koop tends to see faith, too, in shades of black and white. He became a committed Christian as an adult while attending Donald Grey Barnhouse's Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is central to his beliefs. A man who respects chain-of-command authority, Koop seems virtually immune to Kierekegaardian bouts of angst. If God is all powerful, then naturally everything that happens—everything—is under his complete control at all times.
Stumbling into a war zone
The aftermath of a momentous telephone call in August of 1980 put to the test this bedrock belief in God's sovereignty. Ronald Reagan, who had read two of Koop's books, wanted him to serve as the nation's surgeon general. The appointment would help cement Reagan's support among prolife constituents and especially evangelicals, the group who knew Koop best.
Shortly after his inauguration, Reagan named Koop deputy assistant secretary of health and nominated him as surgeon general. That nomination, however, needed congressional action, because the 64-year-old Koop exceeded the age limit for the office by a hundred days. What Reagan and nearly everyone in the administration thought would be a pro forma legislative procedure turned into a political firestorm.
Koop's black-and-white views came back to haunt him. Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and other prochoice groups led the cavalry charge, brandishing every extreme statement Koop had ever made on abortion, women's rights, and homosexuality. In a case of reverse McCarthyism, they questioned not only his beliefs, but also his competence as a physician, his emotional stability, and even his sanity. The staid New York Times ran an editorial entitled "Dr. Unqualified," and the Washington press coined the even more unflattering nickname "Dr. Kook." Congressman Henry Waxman branded him "scary" and "intolerant." Others called him a right-wing crank, a mean-spirited nut, a religious zealot. For the first time in its hundred-year history, the American Public Health Association went on record against a nominee. "We'd be better off with no surgeon general than with Koop," said their executive director.