From time immemorial, abortion, like many forms of violence, persisted in primitive societies. Yes, surely we have all heard the argument that the Greeks or the Romans practiced abortion with few qualms for long stretches of time. Yet, even while crude abortions took place, some of the greatest thinkers in the ancient world wrestled with the ethics of abortion.
The medical field in particular has had a long history of being pro-life. Hippocrates, in the original Hippocratic Oath, forbade physicians from wrongdoing or injuring their patients. Specifically, his oath forbids assisting in suicides and performing abortions. These prohibitions were, according to the oath, necessary to maintain the purity of not only medicine, but also of the doctor. Hippocrates held mixing death and medicine as a black stain on the medical field. Scribonius Largus, another important figure in early medicine, adamantly believed that abortion was akin to killing a man in severity and an utter breach of the Oath. Soranus, yet another Greek physician, felt abortion was only permissible if the mother’s life were at stake. From its earliest inception as a profession in the West, medicine stood against abortion.
St. Augustine, in the Enchiridion, wrestled with abortion and came to an impasse that would eventually shape medical history in America. St. Augustine held that at some point, certainly, the child was alive within the mother. He could not definitively say when the child became alive, however. The moment of quickening, that is when the fetus begins moving, was surely a moment in which it was alive. Before that, he could not be sure, be he was highly suspect of those who claimed that a fetus had never been alive. He also felt, on a side note, that those aborted, being that they had been alive and killed, had a place in the resurrection of the dead. In any case, he settled on the quickening as being a moment in which, if not the moment when life started, at least the baby was alive.
This debate on quickening would inform abortion practices in America. English common law also held that abortions could not be performed after quickening, as that was when life ostensibly began, and such rules carried over into an independent America. In “On the Natural Rights of the Individual”, James Wilson, a framer of the Constitution, claimed that common law protected life from its beginning to its end, and that life of course began in the womb. Yet, these rules on quickening would not long stand.
Abortion had been legal in the early stages of the country because, as a result of ignorance, physicians were not sure exactly when pregnancy began. James Mohr argues that, as medicine advanced, it dawned on physicians that quickening was a rather arbitrary limit on abortions. They realized that, from the moment of conception, the fetus underwent a process of development that would, after 9 months, bring a new human being into the greater world. As quickening was just another step of this transition, so the reasoning went, it would be just as wrong to terminate the pregnancy before the quickening as after. In the second half of the 19th century, along with medical advances, the availability of abortions was restricted and would remain so until Roe.
Thus, the ethical debate on abortion is nearly as old as time. For as long as people have been destroying fetuses, there have been people, usually medical physicians, questioning the morality of ending life. Even in the early foundations of this nation, life was enshrined as important and protected from the moment when it began. Though the founders thought it began at the quickening, science proved life began much earlier, and abortion laws, for a brief period, aligned with common medical knowledge. By entering the debate on Life, you are entering an ancient debate on the side of some of the greatest philosophers of all time.