Paul Greenberg

The surgeon general of the United States needn't be a surgeon. And he may be a general -- or admiral -- only in name. The rank is essentially a civil office -- despite the dress whites and gold braid. Indeed, it was largely an honorary title before Ronald Reagan chose a physician by the name of C. Everett Koop for the appointment.

Dr. Koop, who died this week at the grand old age of 96, was indeed a surgeon and a fine one (his specialty was pediatric surgery at Children's in Philadelphia) and he soon became a household name. And a target of equal-but-opposite denunciations from both ends of the political spectrum.

The rabid right didn't like his crusade against AIDS -- he spoke of it openly and treated it as a disease instead of a moral failing -- and his campaign for sex education, saying words like condom out loud. Shocking. As for the pro-abortion left -- excuse us, the pro-choice left -- it objected to his unswerving reverence for human life.

Together with Francis Schaeffer, the doctor would write a small classic of the pro-life movement ("Whatever Happened to the Human Race?") in which would say all manner of politically incorrect things, however prophetic. For example:

"Once the value of human life has been depreciated, as in Roe v. Wade and the Baby Doe Case, no one is safe. Once 'quality of life' is substituted for the absolute value of human life itself, we all are endangered. Already respected scientists are calling for a time period following birth (a week or so) to decide if newborns have 'sufficient quality of life' to be allowed to live. Already committees of 'medical professionals' would like to decide whether the 'quality of life' of the elderly or anyone seriously ill is high enough to allow them to go on living."

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Dr. Koop had foreseen "death panels" long before the idea had become a volatile topic of political debate -- and understood the fatal potentialities in stylish clich like quality-of-life. It wasn't just in the medical journals, where he documented his pioneering work as a pediatric surgeon in numerous articles, but in the nation's conscience that C. Everett Koop left his mark.

The doctor never let his faith interfere with his science, or his science with his faith. He was true to both. He never saw any need to reconcile them because they didn't conflict. But supported each other. Like intelligence and conscience.

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Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.