Culture: February 2013 Archives

C_Everett_Koop.jpgFormer U. S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop died Monday at the age of 96. Many of the headlines about his death have focused on his time as a member of President Reagan's cabinet and his breaks with conservative allies on government policies regarding tobacco and AIDS.

Evangelicals of a certain age will remember their first encounter with Koop, in the 1979 film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race?. Koop, then a leading pediatric surgeon, appeared in the series with Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer reviewing threats to the sanctity of human life -- abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia -- and calling their fellow Christians to take action to resist these threats.

David Bayly, who knew Koop personally, writes:

The Roman Catholic pro-life movement had its legion of stalwarts in the seventies and early eighties: Joe Scheidler, Mother Theresa, Father Paul Quay, Archbishop O'Connor; the list is impressive. And Evangelicalism? Who were her pro-life leaders? There literally weren't any, at least initially. But then God brought Everett Koop and Francis Schaeffer together and the battle was joined from the Protestant side. It's not an exaggeration to say that Dr. Koop and Francis Schaeffer were the twin fathers of the modern Evangelical pro-life movement.

So we praise God for the life and witness of Dr. Koop. He was there when almost no one else was. Some in the Christian Medical Society may lionize Dr. Koop at his death, but they will perhaps have forgotten Dr. Koop's disgusted resignation from an organization he helped found for its refusal to take an officially pro-life position--a stance he maintained even after Tim's and my father assumed its presidency for a few years in the early 80s. Despite their friendship, Dr. Koop refused Dad's request that he rejoin. Even after passage of a clear and forceful pro-life stance, he initially refused to rejoin an organization that, as he saw it, had been cowardly on the central moral issue of the day.

Read the whole thing. Bayly tells of Koop's correction and encouragement to him as an amateur boy scientist, an anecdote that highlights Koop's devotion to science.

Before he became a public figure, Koop was a pioneering pediatric and neonatal surgeon. From the Philadelphia Inquirer's obituary:

After interning at Pennsylvania Hospital, Dr. Koop joined Children's in 1948, the staff's first pediatric surgeon. For a time, he was the hospital's entire surgery department. When he retired at 66, he presided over 26 full-time surgeons in eight specialties.

Dr. Koop was a pioneer in surgery on newborns, developing techniques for birth defects that, before him, had meant certain death.

The parents of ailing children saw him as heroic. He achieved national prominence in 1974, when he headed a team of 20 surgeons that separated conjoined twin girls who had been born in the Dominican Republic....

To save a life, he did not always follow the rules. In a 1968 interview in Philadelphia Magazine, he told how, on an icy night in 1953, he had received a call from Pennsylvania Hospital about a newborn who had been delivered with abdominal organs in the chest.

Within minutes, Dr. Koop drove to the hospital, parked his car on the sidewalk, and raced to the delivery room. He wrapped the baby in a blanket, placed it on the floor of the car near the heater, and drove back to Children's.

He took no X-rays. He carried the baby to the operating room, opened the chest, put the organs in their proper place, repaired a hole in the diaphragm, and closed it back up.

He had broken all the rules, he said, and would not have followed that procedure at the time of the interview. "On the other hand," he said, "we had a living baby."

He rejected abortion and abhorred amniocentesis, a test to see if a fetus has genetic defects. He labeled it "a search-and-destroy mission." Most women who have amniocentesis did not keep their babies if a defect was found, he noted. "Many of the congenital defects are things that I have spent my entire life correcting," he said.


Whatever Happened to the Human Race, as a YouTube playlist:

C. Everett Koop papers at the National Institutes of Health

The C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth

P. S.: The Inquirer obit mentions that the Senate held up his nomination for 10 months. I suspect (can't find the details) that Senate Democrats were responsible for that hold. He wasn't the only Republican appointee to be blocked by Democrats, and present-day Senate Republicans should remember that even as a minority party they have leverage and ought to use it for the good of the country.

A few thoughts that have been stirring for a week or so:

It's fascinating to me that some of the same liberals who worry (rightfully) about the impact of massive development on the delicate interactions of physical ecosystems can be blithe about the encroachments of the monolithic state on the self-sustaining interdependencies of loyalty, love, parenthood, family, church, neighborhood, community, and commerce.

You can't build a pipeline without poisoning the earth and destroying species, but somehow government with its massive coercive powers can get involved in regulating every human interaction without destroying the intricate web that is the social fabric of a community.

We aren't happy with what nature produces on its own. There are bugs and burrs and mudholes. So we fence it, pave part of it, prune it, brushhog it, spread weedkiller and pesticide to get rid of what we don't want, and spread fertilizer to encourage what we do want. A meadow that thrived for centuries on its own terms is turned into a lawn that needs constant, expensive maintenance to keep it attractive. We find ourselves fighting against nature rather than husbanding it.

We aren't happy with what human nature produces on its own. People can be clannish, selfish, thoughtless. Even when we had a thriving, natural, social ecosystem, people in genuine need sometimes fell through the cracks. The desire to provide government assistance to those few who couldn't be helped any other way became a government program for everyone in need. Dependence enables dysfunction, which creates more dependence and more need for government intervention, which is expensive, because every intervention must be managed.

The leftist response to the problem with human nature and human society is to fence it, pave it, and try to remake it completely, trashing the social ecosystem in the process. They never succeed in changing human nature, but they use their every failure as justification for more spending and more intervention. It's the epitome of non-sustainability.

If I'm solely dependent on government for my food, housing, and job (or unemployment benefits), I don't need to calibrate my interactions with others, and I don't need to rein in my self-centeredness or my desire for instant gratification. I can be as sociopathic as I like and still get fed, clothed, housed, maybe get a free cell phone and free internet. If my sociopathy is amusingly peculiar, I might even get a degree of notoriety on reality television. My only obligation is to vote for the folks who keep spending money on me.

There was a twitterpated Twitter dust-up the other day, in which fiscal conservatives resurrected a year-old dispute and used it to trash social conservatives and wish for our disappearance from the political realm. One tweep said we should work together with groups of "conservatives" organized to promote sexual immorality in order to "destroy progressivism."

But destroying traditional Judeo-Christian views of family and sexual morality are a key part of the progressive agenda, and that part of the progressive agenda must be defeated if we also wish to turn back encroachments upon our economic liberties. A populace that has been trained to believe that their sexual appetites are paramount and must be indulged and honored by all and protected from scorn and shame is going to need and demand a big, power-hungry, money-hungry government to rescue them from the wreckage they make of their lives. They aren't going to vote for policies that encourage entrepreneurship and allow the self-disciplined to prosper. They're going to vote for politicians who will protect them from the consequences of their folly without any need to turn from their folly, much less feel ashamed of it.

SOMEWHAT RELATED, from Rod Dreher:

My sense -- and I've said this elsewhere -- is that from a traditional conservative and small-o orthodox Christian perspective, the battle has been lost because the culture has been lost, and the wisest thing we can do is to retreat to defensible positions while continuing to live out and to teach our religious and moral traditions, in hope of better times. If I'm right, then as a practical matter, the best we can hope for in the secular realm is to fight for the liberty to be left alone. This, as John Z. gets, means in practical terms embracing a libertarianism that we find philosophically objectionable, but which is probably the only option open to us.

Worth your attention: Jonathan V. Last, writing in the Wall Street Journal explains the dire consequences of America's declining fertility rate, which is likely to decline even more steeply in years to come:

The nation's falling fertility rate underlies many of our most difficult problems. Once a country's fertility rate falls consistently below replacement, its age profile begins to shift. You get more old people than young people. And eventually, as the bloated cohort of old people dies off, population begins to contract. This dual problem--a population that is disproportionately old and shrinking overall--has enormous economic, political and cultural consequences....

Low-fertility societies don't innovate because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward health care. They don't invest aggressively because, with the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don't have enough workers to pay for the retirees. They cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.

Last points to Japan as a warning:

If you want to see what happens to a country once it hurls itself off the demographic cliff, look at Japan, with a fertility rate of 1.3. In the 1980s, everyone assumed the Japanese were on a path to owning the world. But the country's robust economic facade concealed a crumbling demographic structure....

By the 1980s, it was already clear that the country would eventually undergo a population contraction. In 1984, demographer Naohiro Ogawa warned that, "Owing to a decrease in the growth rate of the labor force...Japan's economy is likely to slow down." He predicted annual growth rates of 1% or even 0% in the first quarter of the 2000s....

Because of its dismal fertility rate, Japan's population peaked in 2008; it has already shrunk by a million since then. Last year, for the first time, the Japanese bought more adult diapers than diapers for babies, and more than half the country was categorized as "depopulated marginal land." At the current fertility rate, by 2100 Japan's population will be less than half what it is now.

And America can't count on immigration to make up for our decline. Fertility rates in source countries are declining, reducing the pressure for emigration, and the fertility rate among immigrants in the US declines as they become acculturated.

As a solution, Last says it won't be enough to offer tax incentives for childbearing, although those are needed. (I like his idea for cutting social security tax for parents during child-rearing years, with bigger cuts for more kids.) There's a basic cultural attitude that needs adjustment.

There have been lots of changes in American life over the last 40 years that have nudged our fertility rate downward. High on the list is the idea that "happiness" is the lodestar of a life well-lived. If we're going to reverse this decline, we'll need to reintroduce into American culture the notion that human flourishing ranges wider and deeper than calculations of mere happiness.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Culture category from February 2013.

Culture: January 2013 is the previous archive.

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