Saturday, December 06, 2008

Abortion debate, continued

(Third in a series. See first

Abortion -- the unmentionable word

Abortion Cases - Roe vs. Wade - Court Opinion by Blackmun.

In an ongoing attempt to inform both myself and anyone who cares to follow along, I blog this exerpt from the original Roe v Wade decision as written by Mr. Justice Blackmun in 1973. The language of this important decision provides a framework for any legislative remedy to the swelling numbers and casual acceptance of abortion that has ensued over the last thirty years.

The following snip is taken from an on-line record of the original opinion, Part Two. For easier reading, I have edited out the footnotes and other references that appear in the original. Italics are also added by me.

Ancient attitudes. These are not capable of precise determination. We are told that at the time of the Persian Empire abortifacients were known and that criminal abortions were severely punished. We are also told, however, that abortion was practiced in Greek times as well as in the Roman Era, and that "it was resorted to without scruple." The Ephesian, Soranos, often described as the greatest of the ancient gynecologists, appears to have been generally opposed to Rome's prevailing free-abortion practices. He found it necessary to think first of the life of the mother, and he resorted to abortion when, upon this standard, he felt the procedure advisable. Greek and Roman law afforded little protection to the unborn. If abortion was prosecuted in some places, it seems to have been based on a concept of a violation of the father's right to his offspring. Ancient religion did not bar abortion.

The Hippocratic Oath. What then of the famous Oath that has stood so long as the ethical guide of the medical profession and that bears the name of the great Greek (b.460 BC), who has been described as the Father of Medicine, the "wisest and the greatest practitioner of his art," and the "most important and most complete medical personality of antiquity," who dominated the medical schools of his time, and who typified the sum of the medical knowledge of the past? The Oath varies somewhat according to the particular translation, but in any translation the content is clear: "I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion," or "I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly, I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy."

Although the Oath is not mentioned in any of the principal briefs in this case or in Doe v. Bolton, post, it represents the apex of the development of strict ethical concepts in medicine, and its influence endures to this day. Why did not the authority of Hippocrates dissuade abortion practice in his time and that of Rome? The late Dr. Edelstein provides us with a theory: The Oath was not uncontested even in Hippocrates' day; only the Pythagorean school of philosophers frowned upon the related act of suicide. Most Greek thinkers, on the other hand, commended abortion, at least prior to viability. For the Pythagoreans, however, it was a matter of dogma. For them the embryo was animate from the moment of conception, and abortion meant destruction of a living being. The abortion clause of the Oath, therefore, "echoes Pythagorean doctrines," and "in no other stratum of Greek opinion were such views held or proposed in the same spirit of uncompromising austerity."

Dr. Edelstein then concludes that the Oath originated in a group representing only a small segment of Greek opinion and that it certainly was not accepted by all ancient physicians. He points out that medical writings down to Galen (A. D. 130-200) "give evidence of the violation of almost every one of its injunctions." But with the end of antiquity a decided change took place. Resistance against suicide and against abortion became common. The Oath came to be popular. The emerging teachings of Christianity were in agreement with the Pythagorean ethic[See above, a "matter of dogma"]. The Oath "became the nucleus of all medical ethics" and "was applauded as the embodiment of truth." Thus, suggests Dr. Edelstein, it is "a Pythagorean manifesto and not the expression of an absolute standard of medical conduct."

This, it seems to us, is a satisfactory and acceptable explanation of the Hippocratic Oath's apparent rigidity. It enables us to understand, in historical context, a long-accepted and revered statement of medical ethics.

***It seems the issue was not without discussion even in ancient times. Although there seem to have been no penalties, either for the mother or the physician, the procedure did merit enough discussion that idealists, i.e. the Pythagoreans (whoever they were), came to the conclusion that abortion was a violation of something important.

***"abortifacients" is a new word for me. It never occurred to me that RU-235, or whatever it is, had a predecessor, certainly not as far back as the start of the Christian Era.

***Contemporary with Hippocrates "most Greek thinkers...commended abortion, at least prior to viability."
There is that word "viability" again. Somehow even the ancient Greeks, except for the Pythagoreans, made a distinction between stages of a developing fetus.

***According to one Dr. Edlestein, the ideals of Hippocrates were waiting for the emergence of Christianity to gain currency.

For me, this part of Mr. Justice Blackmun's opinion reveals that the abortion debate is at least as old as other debates that seem never to go away. I have to believe that short of the Second Coming (or First, if you are a Messianic Jew) it is reasonable to expect that the abortion debate will continue past my lifetime. I just hate the idea that for so many people the time for discussion has ended.

The two extremes have hunkered down in their respective corners preparing for a showdown of biblical proportions, even those whose attitudes about the Bible are, let us be kind, indifferent at the least.
On one side are those seeking a constitutional ammendment defining the union of an egg and a sperm as a person. [Imagine how many future citizens die as the result of ovulations following the honeymoons of newlyweds. Sorry, I couldn't resist.]
On the other side are those so bonded to the notion of a "woman's right to choose" that they see aborting a healthy, full-term infant as a "slippery slope" in the wrong direction, never for a moment considering that they have already slid to the bottom of the wrong hill.

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