A statement from C. Everett Koop to an interviewer from The New Yorker might serve as a pretty good epitaph for the former surgeon-general, dead at 96.
“I Iooked at the data and then presented the facts to the American people. In science, you can’t hide from the data.”
Koop was a culture warrior before it was cool in the Republican Party, helping to lead his fellow evangelicals into opposition to abortion. Few recall today that anti-abortion politics was felt to be merely a Catholic-vote issue, before its appeal was broadened in the party by a few Protestant leaders like Koop and a few Protestant elected officials like then-Congressman David C. Treen of Louisiana, a Methodist.
As a result, perhaps, liberals bitterly denounced Koop’s appointment as surgeon-general by President Ronald Reagan. But what happened? Koop took the lead in crusading against smoking, to the dismay of the tobacco-state conservatives who had supported his nomination.
And he departed from the militantly anti-gay rhetoric of the day when confronted by the epidemic of AIDS. Koop’s promotion of condom use and sex education horrified some of those who had been his supporters. He was able to set aside his personal opposition to homosexuality because that was not relevant to the public health crisis he faced.
Intellectual honesty is a powerful thing. By all means, let us not hide from the data.