Respond to this Article October 2004

Bucking the Gipper

By Chris Mooney

In part because of his anti-abortion views, Ronald Reagan's first nominee for surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, aroused loud opposition from liberal Democrats. But over time, Koop turned out to be a distinguished model for how devout religious believers can conduct themselves in the scientific arena. Koop greatly peeved the right when he publicly embraced the fight against AIDS and frankly advocated the use of condoms to prevent its spread. He also resisted pressure from the White House to produce a report on the physical and emotional after-effects of abortion, an early strategic attempt by conservatives to gather data on the topic for political reasons. In a 1987 memo to Reagan domestic policy adviser Gary Bauer, White House policy analyst Dinesh D'Souza hit on a clever idea. Remarking on the effectiveness of previous surgeons general in the battle against smoking, D'Souza recommended having Koop study the health consequences of abortion. The hope was to change the focus of the abortion debate, shifting away from legal questions towards a health oriented approach that would "rejuvenate the social conservatives." Soon afterwards, in a speech to pro-lifers, Reagan called upon Koop to produce such a report.

Pro-life groups were gaga for such a study, and it's not hard to see why. Proof of abortion's negative side effects--if such effects existed--would both discourage women from undergoing the procedure and also fuel lawsuits against abortion providers. And in the long run, such evidence could serve as a key device for overturning Roe v. Wade. But despite his personal views, Koop felt pro-lifers had gone on a fishing expedition. In a letter to Reagan declining to produce the desired report, Koop wrote, "the scientific studies do not provide conclusive data about the health effects of abortion on women." In congressional testimony, Koop added that psychological risks from abortion are "miniscule from a public health perspective." Conservative Caucus chair Howard Phillips called Koop's refusal to produce a report "contemptible," but the surgeon general countered, "if I had put out the kind of report that was not would have been attacked and destroyed by scientists and statisticians." As Koop put it: "I'm the nation's surgeon general, not the nation's chaplain."

Chris Mooney, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and author of the Weblog, is writing a book about conservatives and science.

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