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Whatever Happened to Dr. C Everett Koop?

Category Articles
Date May 1, 2000

I [Geoff Thomas] first saw Dr Koop in Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1961. He was an elder, and bore a striking resemblance to the pastor at that time, Mariano Di Gangi. He was a surgeon in the Children’s Hospital, Philadelphia. Then I heard of him again when his son was killed rock-climbing one Sunday, and the book he wrote of that trauma. Then there was his famous ‘marriage’ to Francis Schaeffer, and the fine book and series of films they produced entitled, “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” It was not long after that that President Reagan appointed him as Surgeon General. That was the zenith of his fame, and after that everything seemed to get horribly confused. He, almost alone, had opposed his own congregation, Tenth Presbyterian Church, under the leadership of its pastor James Montgomery Boice, in leaving the modernist dominated Presbyterian Church USA and joining the Presbyterian Church in America, even though Schaeffer called him and urged him to support the change of denominations. But the church did leave the PCUSA. Whatever happened to Dr C. Everett Koop? In the April 24 edition of the Canadian paper, “Christian Renewal” (PO Box 777, Jordan Station, Ontario, LOR ISO, Canada). John P. Elliott goes a long was to supplying an explanation with the following cautionary tale:-

Washington – Dr. C . Everett Koop, former surgeon general and colleague of Francis Schaeffer, is in the news again. Price-Waterhouse-Coopers has announced that Koop’s medical website – lost $75 million in 1999. The accountants predict the cyberbusiness won’t make it to the end of 2000. Shortly after that sombre news “USA Today” reported that Dr. Koop had every reason to celebrate: in February he sold at least $3 million worth of shares in at a hefty profit.

As it turns out the 83 year old Koop has been doing rather well lately. In addition to his web business Koop signed a million dollar consultant’s fee with a latex glove manufacturer. He had somehow neglected to mention that fact when he had lobbied the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health about relaxing regulations concerning latex gloves. When it comes to Washington, Koop’s actions are nothing out of the ordinary. Congressmen and Cabinet secretaries regularly turn their connections into six figure salaries.

But this is Dr. C. Everett Koop: Surgeon General from 1982 – 1989. Crusader against smoking. Pro-life activist. Co-worker with Francis Schaeffer. Narrator of the film “Whatever Happened to the Human Race.” Most people first encountered him as the tall, bearded physician who condemned abortion and euthanasia like an old testament prophet. But the last chapter of his life may be devoted to the question how a Washington insider ran a company into the ground and still came out a multimillionaire.


Koop owes his fame, and ultimately his millions to Francis and Edith Schaeffer. That connection dates from meeting Mrs. Schaeffer in a Philadelphia hospital over four decades ago. She consulted his medical expertise. They then discovered common Evangelical and Presbyterian convictions. Together they forged a long-lasting relationship. Koop came into Schaeffer’s public ministry after Francis Schaeffer had successfully produced the “How Shall We Then Live” tape and lecture series in 1977 and 1978. Convinced that evangelicals needed to be mobilized against abortion, Schaeffer had decided to produce a second film series. Koop seemed to be the perfect man to front the effort. The Philadelphia Presbyterian had a sterling reputation as a first rate children’s surgeon. He had written a book against abortion. He also had an authority and a presence that commanded respect, on and off the camera. As a result Schaeffer convinced him to collaborate on the film and book “Whatever Happened to the Human Race.” The second lecture tour flopped. Schaeffer was despondent. He didn’t think anyone had paid attention. But someone had: Ronald Reagan.


The shift of millions of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians to the Republican Party helped propel Ronald Reagan into the White House. The new president intended to thank that group of voters by bringing one of their leaders into his administration. The post of Surgeon General came open. And Koop appeared to be a safe choice. He was well known and well respected in both the medical and evangelical community. Besides, the Surgeon General’s Office was mostly symbolic. He couldn’t do any harm in the post. That is not what the Democrats thought. They attacked the nomination with a vengeance. Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman of California read Koop’s remarks comparing abortion to euthanasia and said: “Dr. Koop scares me. He is a man of tremendous intolerance.” They viewed Koop as the first breach in the wall of defense around Roe vs. Wade. But Reagan stood by his man. After nine weeks of attacks the Senate approved his nomination by a vote of 68 to 24.

Koop did do some of the things his opponents feared. He backed legislation preventing hospital personnel from denying food or treatment to severely handicapped infants. He also supported requiring medical personnel inform parents if their children receive contraceptives. But few remember those accomplishments. His evangelical supporters remember a lot more. And the memories are not pleasant.

A month after his swearing-in on January 21st, 1982, Koop announced his “Smoke Free Society” initiative. It was the first shot in a seven year crusade against smoking. He had no backing from the White House. And the assault on cigarettes contrasted sharply with his inactivity on the abortion front. Nevertheless, Koop’s anti-smoking campaign had consequences. Smoking declined from a third to a quarter of the population. The campaign also kick-started the demonization of smoking. It laid the ideological framework for persecuting smokers and the current financial shakedown of the tobacco industry.

If Koop had only campaigned against tobacco, he might have been judged as nothing more than a preachy physician wagging his finger at a smoker in for his yearly check up. But he did not stop here. In 1986 President Reagan requested that Koop prepare public health guidelines for combating AIDS. The White House expected policies based on abstinence. Instead, Koop preached condoms and safe sex. Christian activist Phyllis Schlafly gasped that the Gay Rights movement could have written the Surgeon General’s pamphlet.

In 1988 Koop hammered the last nail in the coffin of his relations with his former evangelical fans, not to mention the White House. Again, it came in the form of a request from Ronald Reagan. The President asked Koop to write a report about the impact of abortion on the physical, emotional and psychological health of women. I suspect that Reagan’s political intuition was at work here. The request came a year after Robert Bork was rejected as a Supreme Court nominee. Reagan knew that Roe vs. Wade could not be overturned in the short term. For that reason he looked to change the terms of the debate: from rights of women for abortion to their health afterwards.

Koop declined the historic opportunity. He sent a letter back to the President stating that there was insufficient research to write a report. It was an astounding victory for the pro-abortion forces. Prolife leaders could hardly believe that this was the same man who ten years earlier had compared abortion to Nazi genocide in “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?”

Koop defended himself by arguing that he had to separate his personal ideology from his public duty. He told the New York Times in 1988 after the abortion report, “I am a public health officer. I can’t deliver a public health message to just those people whose behavior the conservatives approve of.”

The last remark is ironic. Koop became Surgeon General in part because the Reaganites thought the post was devoid of any real power. But Koop turned it into the kind of bully pulpit the Democrats feared. But as it turned out they had no reason to fear anything at all. On the contrary. They had every reason to cheer. When Koop left office, the very same pro-abortion Congressman Waxman declared, “If they could find a clone of Koop, they ought to appoint him Surgeon General.”

If anything, Koop’s drift away from the concerns of the Schaeffer years accelerated after his term as Surgeon General ended. In January 1994 he sat next to Hillary Clinton during the State of the Union Message. At that time the First Lady was about to unveil her universal health care package. Koop wanted to show his solidarity for the plan, even though it included subsidized abortion clinics in every locale.

Former colleagues in the pro-life movement may have shaken their heads at all this. But his good name in Washington and in the media made the hostility of his erstwhile evangelical allies irrelevant. When he wanted to launch his web business, his authority as Surgeon general produced Wall Street backing. He also had no problem finding well connected partners. One of the directors of is Dr. Nancy Snyderman, ABC Television News’s Medical Correspondent. Snyderman, by the way, is pro-abortion.


In the eyes of his evangelical admirers C. Everett Koop fell off the wagon somewhere along the way. I cannot explain how and why but I have an idea when it happened. In the spring of 1984 I interviewed Koop for the “Nederlands Dagblad.” The ND was looking at an English language publication and sought Koop’s advice. I don’t remember Koop giving any. I distinctly remember the meeting as a waste of time. The hour I spent with him was a monologue.

Koop struck me as a man who felt quite comfortable occupying a high political office. He delighted in wearing the Navy uniform which came with his position. He spoke as a man used to being listened to without interruptions. Power fit him like a well tailored suit.

But I should have known that he had more on his mind than getting rid of me as soon as the allotted time for the appointment was up. Koop’s monologue that day was a discussion with himself. I realize that now because he talked about Francis Schaeffer. A few weeks earlier he had been at a meeting in Washington where the now deathly ill Schaeffer discussed his book “The Great Evangelical Disaster” (Schaeffer died in May, 1984.) A group of congressmen and Reagan Administration people were present to hear Schaeffer talk about the need for civil disobedience to a godless government. With pain Koop described how the Schaeffers stood completely alone after the lecture. The Washington crowd was so put off that no one came over to talk with Schaeffer. It was clear to me that Koop was identifying with his Washington pals, and breaking with Schaeffer.

It is easy to be hard on Koop. He helped transform the Surgeon General’s office into the Big Nurse with a bull horn it is today. He could have at least turned the same moral outrage against abortion as he did against smoking. Nevertheless, Koop was a realist. He had encountered both the opportunities and limits of exercising power in Washington. He apparently decided to choose his battles. By 1984 Francis Schaeffer had ceased to be his guide in those choices.

I think that his decisions are understandable. Koop took a terrible beating during his confirmation. In the Washington of the early 1980s the liberal-left had complete control of the air. The artillery fired in just one direction. The construction of an effective conservative network in Washington had only just begun. There was no “Washington Times,” no Matt Drudge, no Rutherford Institute, and no Christian Coalition to launch a counterattack.

Twelve years of Reagan and Bush made a considerable difference in this regard. When Bill Clinton sent Jocelyn Elders out to be his moral scold, she was mowed down by the machine gun fire from the conservative trenches. The same network – which Hillary refers to as the “Great Right Wing Conspiracy” has caused the Clintons fits for seven years. Times have changed. If Koop had had that kind of support he might have been a different Surgeon General.

But then he might not have been. In spite of the support of the same conservative network, the Republican majorities in Congress have accomplished nothing since 1995. Spending has increased and big government is bigger than ever. It has been far easier for the Republican “Revolutionaries” to accommodate themselves to the regime than to set the political agenda.

Holding office and exercising power are two entirely different things. The Scriptures sum that up by warning us not to put our trust in princes. Let C. Everett Koop be a reminder of that.

John P. Elliott

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