Medical Ethics in the Ancient World

By Paul Carrick | Go to book overview

6
The Problem
of Abortion

They [midwivesJ cause miscarriages if they think
them desirable.

—SOCRATES, AS QUOTED BY PLATO

WE COME NOW to the third part of this journey into the origins of Western medical ethics. Having already investigated the social setting of ancient medicine as well as the rise of European medical ethics with Hippocrates and his successors, we are in the best position to explore the thinking of the ancients on abortion and euthanasia. Let us next see what the leading philosophers and physicians had to say about these topics. Let us also examine their related thoughts on infanticide and suicide. My final task will be to clarify the moral responsibility of the ancient physician in regard to his professional role as a potential abortionist or purveyor of euthanasia.

Among the specific questions to be pursued are these: What part did various philosophical attitudes toward death have in shaping the ethical perspectives of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca on the above issues? When did these philosophers, in particular, think that human life began and under what conditions, if any, did they allow that human life could be justifiably prevented or ended? Moreover, did members of the Greco-Roman medical and philosophical communities customarily acknowledge an inalienable right to life, or, on the other end of the spectrum, a right to die? Lastly, was suicide admitted to be a rational act in some instances, or was it almost always viewed as impulsive or blameworthy conduct?

Throughout Part III I shall test my earlier conjecture that many physicians who chose to ignore the teachings of the Hippocratic Oath on abortion and euthanasia (assuming they were familiar with some version of that document at all) did so in part because they were persuaded by powerful ethical arguments that di

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