C. Everett Koop, 1916–2013

C. Everett Koop, 1916–2013

From ideologue to reality-based public servant, the evolution of a fascinating man.


U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop addresses a AIDS rally in Boston on June 4, 1989. (AP Photo/Mark Garfinkel)

A decent enough interval has passed, I hope, to begin to think about an interesting figure of our recent history in a bit of a critical temper. C. Everett Koop died on February 25 this year, the former surgeon general of the United States, between 1981 and 1989—the only person to hold that title to have become a household name, not least for his goofy half-beard and his charming insistence on wearing his ceremonial brocaded Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style uniform everywhere. But also for, it has to be said, serving as an exemplar of honor and courage in a dishonorable time. The Associated Press put it like this:

An evangelical Christian, he shocked his conservative supporters when he endorsed condoms and sex education to stop the spread of AIDS.

He carried out a crusade to end smoking in the United States—his goal had been to do so by 2000. A former pipe smoker, he said cigarettes were as addictive as heroin and cocaine….

Koop, a devout Presbyterian, was confirmed after he told a Senate panel he would not use the surgeon general’s post to promote his religious ideology. He kept his word.

In 1986, he issued a frank report on AIDS, urging the use of condoms for “safe sex” and advocating sex education as early as third grade.

He also maneuvered around uncooperative Reagan administration officials in 1988 to send an educational AIDS pamphlet to more than 100 million U.S. households, the largest public health mailing ever done.

Koop personally opposed homosexuality and believed sex should be saved for marriage. But he insisted that Americans, especially young people, must not die because they were deprived of explicit information about how the HIV virus was transmitted.

He became a hero to AIDS activists, who chanted “Koop, Koop” at his appearances but booed other officials.

And all power to him for that. You don’t see his like much any more, in that there Republican Party. After all, the AP also noted, shortly before his appointment, he was going around the country predicting a “progression from legalized abortion to infanticide to passive euthanasia to active euthanasia, indeed to the very beginnings of political climate that led to Auschwitz, Dachau, and Belsen.”

Then, strikingly enough, he changed.

Disappointingly, the Newspaper of Record downplayed that part of the story in their obituary, merely noting in that trademark anodyne Gray Lady fashion, “Dr. Koop was completing a successful career as a pioneer in pediatric surgery when he was nominated for surgeon general, having caught the attention of conservatives with a series of seminars, films, and books in collaboration with the theologian Francis Schaeffer that expressed anti-abortion views.”

“Expressed anti-abortion views”: oh, it was so much more interesting and colorful than that. On abortion, Dr. Koop made history twice: second by rejecting hysteria on the subject; and first, by pioneering it.

Frank Schaeffer, Francis Schaeffer’s son, tells the first part of that story in his fascinating memoir, Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. The story begins in the most unlikely place: a religious commune in the mountains of Switzerland, l’Abri, where the elder Schaeffer and his wife Edith Schaeffer, eloquent, learned, cultured and charismatic, became a magnet for 1960s spiritual seekers including the likes of Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin—this even though the theology was evangelical, even fundamentalist. “In Evangelical circles,” Crazy for God explains, “if you wanted to know what Bob Dylan’s songs meant, Francis Schaeffer was the man to ask…. Dad was wearing his hair longer and longer, and he grew a goatee. He took to wearing beige Nehru jackets, odd linen shirts, and mountain-climbers’ knickers,” and “evolved into a hip guru preaching Jesus to hippies, a precursor to, and spiritual father of, the Jesus movement.”

The intellectual point of commonality between the fundamentalist and the freaks was anti-materialism: “Dad said that middle-class values, bereft of their Christian foundation, were empty. He sided with ‘the kids’ against their ‘uptight parents.’… They were describing a world you can’t see, the invisible link between mortality and immortality…bring alive the biblical epoch to twentieth-century young people, competing with modernity by talking up a storm, convincing smart people that the spiritual world is more real and essential than the evidence of one’s eyes.”

Cool stuff. An impassioned student of Western art and philosophy, early in the mid-1970s Francis Schaeffer spread his vision of that the art and philosophy he loved was ineluctably rooted in a Christian worldview, and threatened by the decline of that worldview, by collaborating with a movie producer to create a multi-part film series intended for viewing by church groups—whose philistinism Dr. Schaeffer was glad to challenge when his creative vision demanded it: “We can’t have this for a Christian audience. Churches won’t rent it,” the producer said of stock footage of Michelangelo’s David. Responded Francis Schaeffer: “But we have other nudes and you never said anything. What about Mary’s breast in that Virgin and Child?” “That was bad enough! One holy tit is okay, as long as you don’t leave it on the screen too long. But churches don’t do cock!”

The concluding two parts of the series, which was called How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, took an unexpected and historically significant turn. Frank Schaeffer, the son, who was directing the films, had become an impassioned pro-life activist. Abortion, he insisted, represented just the sort of materialist desecration of a godly worldview they were seeking to illustrate. The father was skeptical; fighting abortion was a Catholic thing. Père and fils had a shouting match: “I don’t want to be identified with some Catholic issue. I’m not putting my reputation on the line for that!… What does abortion have to do with art and culture? I’m known as an intellectual, not for this sort of political thing!” Son prevailed—with the sort of ace-in-the-hole argument that would soon become all-too-creepily familiar in evangelical circles. Frank remembers himself shouting, “That’s what you always say about the Lutherans in Germany! “You say they’re responsible for the Holocaust because they wouldn’t speak up, and now you’re doing the same thing! Fucking coward!’ You’re always talking about the ‘dehumanization of man’; now, here is your best example!’”

Though I haven’t been able to find a single reference to this literally world-changing event in newspapers of the time outside announcements on the religion pages (the evangelical upsurge simply wasn’t on America’s political radar at the time), the series, which toured the nation beginning in 1977, ended up taking Christian America by storm—including a showing before 6,000 in Dallas starring quarterback Roger Starbauch and half the Dallas Cowboys and a booking in Madison Square Garden in New York. That was the way How Should We Then Live? became history’s second most influential spur to the evangelical anti-abortion crusade.

The first most influential was the sequel. Enter the Good Doctor, the surgeon-in-chief at Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital and an old family friend of the Schaeffers.

“His pro-life passion,” Frank writes, “was based on having spent a lifetime saving the lives of babies that were sometimes the same age as those killed in late-term abortions.” He traveled to l’Abri to draft the new series of films that became Whatever Happened to the Human Race?: A Christian Response to Abortion, Euthanasia, and Infanticide. It was a lurid anti-abortion masterpiece—one with a $1.5 million budget (almost $6 million today) and a score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

The title cards for Episode 1 (“The Abortion of the Human Race”) introduced Drs. Schaeffer and Koop (“one of the world’s most prominent surgeons,” who “has spent a lifetime studying man’s attitudes and trends from a medical point of view”). The opening image depicted a family clad in white with white death masks painting the title on a pane of glass (the words “Human Race” in blood red)—then shattering it. Dr. Koop, in bow tie, answers the phone, dispatching a baby to the operating room, where doctors evidently save her life, then place her in an incubator. “Why is a human life worth saving?” Dr. Schaeffer narrates. “Why is it worth the trouble? Human life contains so much potential evil as well as good. It would hardly seem worth preserving at all unless there was a specific, compelling reason for doing. Traditionally, in Western culture, the life of a human individual has been regarded as very special. the fully developed view of the sanctity of human life in the West, did not come from nowhere, but came directly form the Judeo-Christian consensus…based on Biblical teachings, people used to view human life as unique, something to be protect, and loved, because it was made in the image of God.”

No longer. “For example, in some of today’s hospitals, this child would be left to die…”

Why? ” The answer is clear. The consensus of our society no longer rests upon a Christian base but upon a humanistic one…man putting himself at the center of all things…all reality is just one big machine…this causes people to view themselves differently, and to have different attitudes toward other human beings.” An image of rabbits in scientists’ cages evolves into one of squalling babies in scientists’ cages. Of cars being crushed in a scrap yard, Dr. Schaeffer lecturing from atop the junk heap, sad-eyed, on the “mechanistic view of people” that has been replacing Christianity: “Now we are faced with a generation who has taken these ideas out of the lab, out of the classroom, and into the streets. More and more, we find ourselves in an uglier world…and God as a personal creator is excluded from the picture,” with “no reason that man should be considered as special.”

Then a discussion by Dr. Koop of fetal development, then a cool and clinical description of the various supposed forms of abortion—“the surgeon then scrapes the wall of the uterus, cutting the baby’s body to pieces…”—over the image of a black baby doll, laying as if in shards of glass, then a gaggle of baby dolls, drowning amid those shards of glass, accompanied by Bernard Herman–like violin screeching. Schaeffer is revealed standing above the dead baby dolls, and the apparent shards of glass is shown to be salt. The scene was literally filmed on the Dead Sea—“where the city of Sodom once stood,” Schaeffer explained…

And so on. The same sort of cross-country tour followed, only bigger; only this time, the mainstream media paid attention—at least a little bit. For instance, a version was shown in January of 1981 on prime time in Washington, DC (“No Matter How Moving, Show Is Still Propaganda,” ran a piece on the showing on the front page of the Washington Post Style section). In 1982, Newsweek’s religion reporter Kenneth Woodward profiled Schaeffer—but, as Frank Schaeffer pointed out, Woodward was “one of the few reporters who seemed to ‘get’ what was happening with the emergence of the Evangelical pro-life movement.” His editors didn’t; “Newsweek had just dropped its dropped its religion section as “irrelevant.”

Ah, yes. So “irrelevant” that millions of Americans would soon adopting Whatever Happened to the Human Race’s inanities—the embryos are morally equivalent to infants; that without a conception of God ethics is impossible; that the “slippery slope” of abortion would soon lead to mass killings of the redundant elderly and handicapped—or an American Auschwitz; that late-term abortions (babies “removed alive,” as Dr. Koop shamefully claimed, then “allowed to die by neglect, and sometimes are killed by a direct act”) were epidemic—would be among the most important principles they would take into the voting booths each November.

Dr. Koop had been in the forefront of this rank politicization of a minority religious opinion—then, somehow, he dropped the ideologue’s armor in favor of the scientist’s. “Koop further angered conservatives by refusing to issue a report requested by the Reagan White House, saying he could not find enough scientific evidence to determine whether abortion has harmful psychological effects on women,” the AP recalls. “At a congressional hearing in 2007, Koop spoke about political pressure on the surgeon general post. He said Reagan was pressed to fire him every day, but Reagan would not interfere”—good for Reagan, and good for Koop, who persevered. He ended up advising Bill Clinton on healthcare reform. I’m not a Christian, but I believe in redemption. Thank the Goddess C. Everett Koop found his way to this one. Rest in peace.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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