WASHINGTON — Some conservatives, angry over what they describe as the "self-appointed intrusion" of other conservatives into the AIDS debate, have risen to defend Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who has been under attack for his outspoken views on how to combat the epidemic.
"To ignore reality within our society is to act like ostriches," wrote Douglas O. Lee, chairman of Americans for Nuclear Energy, to ultraconservatives Phyllis Schlafly and Paul M. Weyrich, who initiated the campaign against Koop several months ago. "As a conservative, I resent your self-appointed intrusion into this discussion. This is a medical problem . . . ."
Koop's views have deeply divided his once-solid constituency, which supported him through his confirmation fight and his first years as the nation's chief physician.
His report to the nation on AIDS last October, which called for sex education as early as elementary school and pleaded for compassion for AIDS patients, has transformed public debate on the epidemic. Since then, Koop has engaged in an unusually frank discussion of how AIDS is spread and has called for the advertisement of condoms on television and in other media.
Schlafly and Weyrich, among other things, object to Koop's promotion of condoms as the best way to reduce sexual spread of the AIDS virus and have criticized him for advocating sex education that would teach what they call "safe sodomy" and "safe fornication with condoms" to children. They have also described his comments about AIDS as "a cover-up for the homosexual community."
"No one appointed him to prescribe curriculum for grade school," Schlafly said Tuesday in an interview. "It's really out of line--and what he is prescribing is unacceptable."
Schlafly, who spearheaded the successful drive in the 1970s to defeat the equal rights amendment, recently wrote Koop in an angry letter: "We note that you did not advise people to use cigarette holders with filters in order to slightly reduce the health risks of smoking. We believe it would be just as irresponsible to advise people to use condoms in order to slightly reduce the health risks of illicit sexual activity."
'Not in Public Schools'
Further, she said, Koop fails to "differentiate between advice to adults and what could properly be taught to minor children. If he wants to go into singles' bars and say: 'Use condoms,' that's fine. But not in the public schools."
Koop, who was out of the country and could not be reached for comment, is known to be stung by the criticism, although he feels very strongly--as he wrote in response to Schlafly--that he must carry out his duties "in a scrupulously correct and scientific manner" and not become involved in "matters . . . which are judgmental in nature and which do not directly bear upon the scientific, medical and epidemiological facts of the disease of AIDS."
As part of their efforts, Schlafly and Weyrich have persuaded several conservatives, including presidential aspirant Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), to withdraw their names as sponsors of a dinner next Tuesday honoring Koop.
Some Fighting Back
But, in recent weeks, others in the conservative community have begun to fight back--against their own--in support of Koop.
"I hate to be in a public debate with Phyllis Schlafly, since we have a lot of things in common," said Elizabeth Whelan, executive director of the American Council on Science and Health, a conservative consumer education group. "But she is wrong about Dr. Koop."
Whelan said she was initially "horrified" by Koop's views as they were described in a recent mailing by Schlafly and Weyrich. After receiving Schlafly's letter, however, Whelan said she called Koop's office and asked to be sent copies of his most recent speeches on AIDS.
"When I sat and read these and compared them to what Phyllis said he said--I cried," Whelan said. "I'm sure others won't take the time to do what I did. I know there are a lot of people out there who would be with Dr. Koop if they didn't have their information filtered through Phyllis Schlafly."
Whelan said that, when her telephone calls to Schlafly were not returned, she wrote a letter.
"In everything I've read in Dr. Koop's written speeches, he stresses monogamy as the first line of defense against AIDS," she wrote. "But, if Dr. Koop were to remain mute on the subject of condoms, he would be withholding vital public health information . . . . Our value system should not be so purist that it will condemn thousands of Americans to death . . . ."
Further, Whelan said, she and her husband, lawyer Stephen T. Whelan, were startled and angered to discover that his name was one of those attached to Schlafly's letter to Koop. Whelan said her husband had signed no such letter.
"He and I were at a meeting in February of a political group where Phyllis went around collecting signatures for a petition in support of teaching abstinence," Mrs. Whelan said. "He doesn't agree with her statements about Dr. Koop and doesn't like getting caught up in deceptions of that kind."
Schlafly insisted that the names on the Koop letter were legitimate. "Everybody knew what they were signing," she said.
Immune System Destroyed
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by a virus that destroys the body's immune system, leaving it powerless to resist certain cancers and otherwise rare infections. It can also invade the central nervous system, causing severe neurological disorders. It is commonly transmitted through anal and vaginal sexual intercourse, through the sharing of unsterilized hypodermic needles and by woman to fetus during pregnancy.