Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Unlikely ally

Surgeon General C. Everett Koop
C. Everett Koop, who died today at 96, was an unlikely ally in the fight against HIV/AIDS. I remember very well why we never expected what we got from him.

When President Ronald Reagan nominated Koop to be Surgeon General in 1982, many of us expected the worst. We’d already spent a year fighting the excesses of his administration and the rightwingers who rode Reagan’s coattails into Congress. So, when we heard that Reagan was appointing an anti-abortion children’s doctor, I don’t think anyone in the centre or left of US politics thought we’d see anything good from him.

We were wrong.

Koop was a doctor who put his profession and duty ahead of his own personal religious beliefs, and ahead of the partisan political agenda of his own party. I believe that he was the only person who could have led the fight against HIV/AIDS at that time: The early and mid 1980s were filled with sexism and homophobia, and no one except a heterosexual male anti-abortion doctor could have made the case for compassion and understanding of the disease.

Some AIDS activists faulted him for his emphasis on prevention rather than searching for a cure, or at least better treatments, faster. But in the decades since, we’ve seen how elusive a vaccine or cure have proven to be, and there’s still no reason to think that more money would have sped things up, not with so much science yet to be done (the human genome hadn’t even been mapped at the stage). Also, prevention is always cheaper and faster than either treatment or a cure.

He certainly wasn’t perfect or a saint: In addition to expressing opposition to abortion, he also said that he personally “opposed” homosexuality. Yet what makes him so remarkable is that despite those personal views, he refused to scapegoat or demonise gay men—quite the opposite—at a time when politicians were calling for quarantining gay men, even putting them into concentration camps. We forget how scary those days really were for gay men.

Koop resisted the partisan political imperatives of the Reagan administration not just on HIV/AIDS, but also abortion, when he refused to go along with their demand that he produce a report to claim that abortion caused bad effects on women’s health. When the report was issued despite his attempts to stop it, he said publicly that he’d never read it.

So, in Koop the US had exactly the sort of person who should be Surgeon General: Someone who did their job and who put the country ahead of party. Why are there no more Republicans like him?!

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