Swearing by Apollo

Tom Riley
The scholars over at Yahoo! News -- who have long labored to make USA Today look like Mind: A Quarterly Review of Philosophy -- have now turned to settling the confusion suffered by the rest of us on the issue of abortion.

The mentality involved here is that of Elizabeth Heffernan, national correspondent, whose qualifications include stints at Harper's, The New Yorker, and Slate.

Heffernan doesn't mess around. She makes a point of going back 2,500 years to the Hippocratic Oath. Once you have the proper historical perspective, these problems are as easy as weighting poll samples.

As is well known, the Hippocratic Oath -- a good translation of which can be found here -- forbids abortion. Heffernan does not deny this fact. She merely attempts to go deeper into the "proper context:"

In the ancient oath, the Apollo-worshiping internist vows above all to protect "health and life." He then specifically says that, toward this end, he won't perform euthanasia; he won't perform abortion; and he won't remove kidney stones and gallstones.

Does that mean these procedures are in themselves immoral? Far from it -- as anyone who has had gallstones removed might agree. Rather, these three procedures, we are made to understand, require both philosophical and manual work for which early physicians, trained in medicine but not abdominal surgery, were not qualified.

The problem with Heffernan's trenchant analysis is that it falsifies the oath -- in which euthanasia and abortion are prohibited in terms that do not apply at all to using the knife.

Euthanasia and abortion are condemned in paragraph four, whereas using the knife is excluded from the proper work of the physician in paragraph six. The Oath makes specific provisions for referring to a surgeon in the case of gallstones. It makes no such provision in the cases of euthanasia or abortion. Heffernan's assertion that "The would-be suicide, on the same logic, should administer poison to himself, or have a trusted and willing friend aid him," is directly contradicted by the oath, which forbids not only performing euthanasia but "advising such a plan."

So confused is Heffernan's presentation of the oath that it is hard to believe she had a copy in front of her as she wrote, or had read the text at any time since she went to work for Harper's, The New Yorker, or Slate.

But the result was one that Yahoo! News can live with. Why sweat the boring scholarly details?

The word used for "abortive" in the Hippocratic Oath, by the way, is phthorion. A version of the same word is used in the Didache or "Teachings of the Twelve Apostles," an early Christian document condemning abortion. In contrast, the Modern Greek word for abortion is ektrosis -- which, using Greek roots, more precisely mirrors the construction of our Latinate word. The Koine word phthorion translates literally as "destructive."

And that, as even Heffernan surely knows, is why the Hippocratic Oath really forbids abortion.

The scholars over at Yahoo! News -- who have long labored to make USA Today look like Mind: A Quarterly Review of Philosophy -- have now turned to settling the confusion suffered by the rest of us on the issue of abortion.

The mentality involved here is that of Elizabeth Heffernan, national correspondent, whose qualifications include stints at Harper's, The New Yorker, and Slate.

Heffernan doesn't mess around. She makes a point of going back 2,500 years to the Hippocratic Oath. Once you have the proper historical perspective, these problems are as easy as weighting poll samples.

As is well known, the Hippocratic Oath -- a good translation of which can be found here -- forbids abortion. Heffernan does not deny this fact. She merely attempts to go deeper into the "proper context:"

In the ancient oath, the Apollo-worshiping internist vows above all to protect "health and life." He then specifically says that, toward this end, he won't perform euthanasia; he won't perform abortion; and he won't remove kidney stones and gallstones.

Does that mean these procedures are in themselves immoral? Far from it -- as anyone who has had gallstones removed might agree. Rather, these three procedures, we are made to understand, require both philosophical and manual work for which early physicians, trained in medicine but not abdominal surgery, were not qualified.

The problem with Heffernan's trenchant analysis is that it falsifies the oath -- in which euthanasia and abortion are prohibited in terms that do not apply at all to using the knife.

Euthanasia and abortion are condemned in paragraph four, whereas using the knife is excluded from the proper work of the physician in paragraph six. The Oath makes specific provisions for referring to a surgeon in the case of gallstones. It makes no such provision in the cases of euthanasia or abortion. Heffernan's assertion that "The would-be suicide, on the same logic, should administer poison to himself, or have a trusted and willing friend aid him," is directly contradicted by the oath, which forbids not only performing euthanasia but "advising such a plan."

So confused is Heffernan's presentation of the oath that it is hard to believe she had a copy in front of her as she wrote, or had read the text at any time since she went to work for Harper's, The New Yorker, or Slate.

But the result was one that Yahoo! News can live with. Why sweat the boring scholarly details?

The word used for "abortive" in the Hippocratic Oath, by the way, is phthorion. A version of the same word is used in the Didache or "Teachings of the Twelve Apostles," an early Christian document condemning abortion. In contrast, the Modern Greek word for abortion is ektrosis -- which, using Greek roots, more precisely mirrors the construction of our Latinate word. The Koine word phthorion translates literally as "destructive."

And that, as even Heffernan surely knows, is why the Hippocratic Oath really forbids abortion.