Koop attended to the defenseless and the voiceless

ASSOCIATED PRESS Dr. C. Everett Koop, a former U.S. surgeon general who spent years saving children's lives here in Philadelphia, died in February.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Dr. C. Everett Koop, a former U.S. surgeon general who spent years saving children's lives here in Philadelphia, died in February.
Posted: March 15, 2013

SOMETIMES, death confirms the eternal value of life.

I'm not referring to the resurrection, even though the Lenten season lends itself to such discussions. What I'm talking about is more mundane, and yet, for that reason, easier for believers and nonbelievers alike to wrap their minds around.

Earlier this month, C. Everett Koop, a giant of both medicine and spirituality, died. Left to mourn him were the children - now parents and even grandparents themselves - who were literally saved by his surgeon's hands. Koop pioneered the procedures that cheated Death of his tiniest targets: premature babies and ailing toddlers who had little chance of survival. In his care, they went on to lead unexpectedly productive lives.

A humanitarian in the mold of Albert Schweitzer, Koop devoted decades of service at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and in the Office of the Surgeon General to one thing above all: the celebration of life. He preached no public sermons but taught us, through scientific miracles, that even the tiniest, weakest and most defenseless creatures were worthy of compassion. And on his watch, they flourished.

I thought of Koop when I read the tragic story of the young New York couple that was killed in a hit-and-run accident on the way to the hospital. The wife was seven months pregnant and being taken to the emergency room by her husband to be examined when a drunk driver slammed into their car on a Sunday morning in early March. In an act of heroism reminiscent of Koop, the surgeons at Bellevue Hospital were able to deliver what no one has dared call a 'fetus' before the mother succumbed to her injuries. And for a brief moment, these biblical words made sense: "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."

Tragically, the baby had suffered too much trauma to survive and died a day after his parents. But during those few hours that he clung to life, he was truly the joy of his grieving relatives who saw in him a way to salvage some grace from their devastating loss.

Four deaths in all: an old man, two young parents looking forward to a happy future and a tiny life that barely grazed this world before joining his mother and father in the next one. They must be remembered and, in the case of the last three, deeply mourned for all of the lost potential. But at the same time, these deaths are a lesson of how debased society has become.

This is not a column strictly about what you suspect it might turn into. It is not another brief against abortion. I have already marshaled my legal and moral arguments in the past, and it is clear that some people will continue to cling to their beliefs in reproductive choice as if it were a religion, which to them it is. I am not addressing them, because their ears have been stopped up by several generations of rhetoric that, while comfortably simple in its offer of a "choice," ignores the true nature of that choice. Inviting them to a dialogue is bound to leave me with a lot of empty chairs at the table.

While I hope that some future world will have in its legal code a prohibition on abortion, I doubt that I'll be around to see it. What I do think possible, though, is a complete rewiring of our 21st-century brains so that they'll be oriented toward a culture of respect for potential instead of desire for convenience. Because that is what abortion, euthanasia and rationed medical care have led us to. In a world where a dying 86-year-old woman is denied CPR because of nursing-home rules is not the type of world that Koop labored in for decades. Here was a man who understood that a society is distinguished by how it treats its youngest and its oldest, and not by how well it caters to those with powerful voices.

It's not always easy to pay attention to the weakest among us. In fact, we often engage in psychological games to avoid facing the truth. We train ourselves to look at a pregnant college student with a full course load who doesn't have time for a baby as the "victim" because she has this difficult choice: abort the child or the diploma. But in equating the baby with a certificate, in making no distinction between their relative values, we are engaging in a dangerous game of moral equivalency.

Koop, a man of science, understood that danger. He was strongly opposed to amniocentesis because he knew that its marginal medical value was far outweighed by its ethical threat: the incentive it provided for some women to abort an imperfect child that he could have possibly saved, if given the chance.

The doctors at Bellevue who fought to salvage that infinitesimal piece of God on that sad Sunday evening must have understood it, too.


Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.


Email: cflowers1961@gmail.com

Blog: philly.com/flowers

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