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Before There Were Ultrasounds

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Adrian Clark

Jeremy Lott - published on 06/24/14

There was the Hippocratic Oath, for good reason.

Before Roe v. Wade, most of America’s first “pro-lifers,” as we would call them, were doctors and nurses. They were predominantly Catholic, yet they didn’t understand what their religion had to do with anything. The way they saw it, opposition to legal abortion was simply a logical extension of their vocation.

After all, that once-pagan injunction called the Hippocratic Oath was the ethical bedrock of their profession. Popularly summarized as “first, do no harm,” the Oath spelled out this duty in some detail. Would-be healers were made to swear, “I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel. Similarly, I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.”

Progressives and feminists wanted to junk this part of the Oath. They argued that just as the medical profession had done away with the requirement to swear by Apollo, Asclepius, Hygieia, Panacea, and all the other Greek gods and goddesses, so also it ought to scrap this antiquated concern for fetal life.

Many theories have been offered for why it was Catholic healers who stood against the tide. To me, the most convincing argument has to do with their education, though the "why" of it might surprise you. It had little to do with theology, and rather more to do with philosophy.

Catholic physicians learned from the great Greek scientist and philosopher Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas, a Doctor of the Church with a highly philosophical bent, that human life, including the embryo, had a “telos” — a target that it was driving at, a plan, an unfolding, an internal logic. Or, as scientists would later call it, a DNA.

The result of the procreative process was a unique person with dignity and rights and all that. This was a fellow human being who hadn’t quite unfolded as much as the rest of us had as yet, but a human being nonetheless. This was a truth that medical professionals were charged with respecting, by the very nature of their jobs.

There were arguments, from ancient speculation about ensoulment to the present squid ink over “personhood.” These did not change the basic ethical outlook of healers. Their job was to help their fellow humans, not kill them. Basic biology and copious experience informed physicians that fetal life was human life. Therefore?

Therefore, doctors and nurses who looked at their jobs at all thoughtfully could see clearly what the spread of ultrasound technology would later show the rest of us. The thing that resides in the womb is not some random clump of cells but one of us. From an extremely early stage in its development, it is recognizably a human being, jumping through all the same hoops that we all did at one point.

People have gone to great lengths to ignore this. But it is an undeniable truth about our biology and our shared humanity. And it ought to be an unsectarian truth as well.

One needn’t believe in God or subscribe to any particular articles of faith to see that abortion is the snuffing out of a unique human life — a life that would rightly be endowed with rights against such violence the second it was delivered.

Many people of faith have seen this clearly. Time for the rest of the world to catch up.

Jeremy Lott is an editor of

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