The Evangelical Who Tackled AIDS

Michael Specter eulogizes C. Everett Koop, the late surgeon general under Reagan:

Koop turned out to be a scientist who believed in data at least as deeply as he believed in God. And he proceeded to alienate nearly every supporter he had on the religious and political right. To fight the growing epidemic of AIDS, Koop recommended a program of compulsory sex education in schools, and argued that, by the time they reached third grade, children should be taught how to use condoms. He did not consider homosexuality morally acceptable—and he never changed his view about that. But he understood that viruses have no religion or sexual orientation and that H.I.V. was a virus. He campaigned vigorously against smoking in public spaces, saying that tobacco should be eliminated from American society by 2000. He was the public official to state categorically that second-hand smoke causes cancer. Tobacco companies—and Jesse Helms, their biggest congressional ally—could hardly believe Koop’s treachery.

Cord Jefferson has more on Koop’s critical approach to AIDS:

In an effort to help cut through a lot of the bigoted nonsense, in 1988 Koop authored an informational pamphlet called “Understanding AIDS” and mailed it to all 107 million households in the United States. Despite his personal Christian conservative beliefs, Koop’s pamphlet dispatched a lot of paranoid misinformation swirling around AIDS in favor of frank talk about sex and prophylactics. For instance, while “Understanding AIDS” advocated abstinence and monogamy as “safe behaviors,” it also heralded condoms, recommended early childhood sex education, and suggested Americans do whatever they could to help AIDS patients in need “without fear of becoming infected.” What’s more, all of this came during a time when President Reagan himself would hardly mention AIDS, let alone say “the rectum is easily injured during anal intercourse,” as “Understanding AIDS” noted.