By the time C. Everett Koop became a household name, he had already had a brilliant medical career spanning some 35 years at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. There, he treated thousands of children, many of whom suffered from grievous defects that other surgeons would not attempt to treat. Koop’s fearlessness, compassion, keen scientific mind and sharp medical technique led to the creation of numerous anesthetic and surgical techniques used to tackle pediatric conditions that other surgeons at the time deemed hopeless. Koop gained acclaim for his work on separating conjoined twins, dealing with childhood cancer, shunting excess spinal or cranial fluid, inguinal hernia repairs, correcting esophageal atresia and other conditions.
At the same time, Koop was also known for his fundamentalist Christianity, and for strongly opposing abortion on moral grounds. After working with Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer to produce What Became of the Human Race?—a sharp criticism of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, Koop was nominated by President Reagan in 1981 to become the next U.S. Surgeon General. Conservatives cheered the move (and liberals decried it) because of Koop’s religious convictions and overall conservatism. The hearings to confirm him were the kind of political trench warfare that have become commonplace now, but were quite rare in the early 1980s, and especially for a government position that, until then, rarely gained much notice.
Soon after his confirmation, Koop was pressured by the Reagan administration to produce a report showing that abortions caused psychological harm to the women who underwent the procedure. Koop resisted, seeing no scientific evidence to back up such a conclusion. He still opposed abortion morally (and would never waver from that), but he saw his role as Surgeon General as a scientific, not a moral one, and on those grounds he quickly became a polarizing figure for his controversial stands that were meant, above all, to keep as many Americans as healthy as possible.
Koop’s long experience with esophageal atresia led to his involvement in the “Baby Doe” case (in which a newborn with the condition was allowed to die, untreated). This, in turn, led to the Congressional passage of the Baby Doe Amendment to the 1984 child abuse law which prohibited the denial of vital health care to severely handicapped newborns.