Abortion and the Hippocratic Oath
The original rendering of this historic creed explicitly condemns abortion.
The Hippocratic Oath was revolutionary in its unyielding devotion to the preservation of individual human life. It stood in marked contrast to the more primitive medical traditions that blurred the lines between killing and curing. In its original form, the oath prohibits both euthanasia and abortion.
Opposition to abortion from within the medical community is hardly a modern phenomenon. Though advancing technology has only recently given us clear access to the astonishing development taking place within the womb (see National Geographic's In the Womb and Biology of Prenatal Development), doctors have long known that human embryos and fetuses are nothing less than tiny human beings.
In 400 BC (almost 2500 years ago), Hippocrates of Cos, the famous Greek physician who is generally considered the "Father of Medicine", crafted (by his own hand or through a pupil) what remains the most enduring tradition in all of medical history: The Hippocratic Oath. Variants of the oath, which established basic guidelines for medical ethics, are still taken today by virtually all graduating medical students. In its original form, we read the following:
I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art.
The original significance of the Hippocratic Oath lay in its unyielding devotion to the preservation of individual human life. The BBC website, in an article on the Hippocratic Oath, quotes anthropologist Margaret Mead:
For the first time in our tradition there was a complete separation between killing and curing. Throughout the primitive world, the doctor and the sorcerer tended to be the same person. He with the power to kill had power to cure, including specially the undoing of his own killing activities. He who had the power to cure would necessarily also be able to kill...With the Greeks the distinction was made clear. One profession, the followers of Asclepius, were to be dedicated completely to life under all circumstances, regardless of rank, age or intellect - the life of a slave, the life of the Emperor, the life of a foreign man, the life of a defective child...
On the heels of World War II, the Nuremberg Code of Ethics in Medical Research was formed to deal with prosecuting the Nazi doctors who were behind some of the most egregious medical crimes the world had ever known (Incidentally, it was learned in 1992 that Josef Mengele, the most notorious and brutal Nazi physician, became an abortionist in Buenos Aires, while living out the remainder of his post-war life in hiding). The declaration which resulted, The Declaration of Geneva (1948), was crafted as a means of bringing the Hippocratic Oath up to date. Included in the original language of that declaration is the following:
I WILL MAINTAIN the utmost respect for human life, from the time of conception; even under threat, I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity.
Though the term, "from the time of conception," is sometimes rendered, "from the beginning," or left off altogether, the essence of the declaration remains the same. Since we know that human life begins at conception, taking an oath to preserve human life in general is also an oath to preserve human life in the womb. The following year (1949), the International Code of Medical Ethics, drafted by the World Medical Association, included similar language:
A doctor must always bear in mind the obligation of preserving human life from conception.
Like the Declaration of Geneva, the specific language of "conception" has become less fashionable and less used, but the original intent remains clear. Destroying a human being before or after birth was considered an unconscionable medical paractice. Why else would both of the medical ethics declarations, crafted in response to the Holocaust, place specific emphasis on protecting human life from the moment of conception? Professor John Hunt, Ph.D. writes in "The Abortion and Eugenics Policies of Nazi Germany":
We now turn to Nazi abortion policy. As we have seen, there had been agitation throughout the Weimar period to liberalize/legalize abortion. This resulted in a compromise: Liberalization. Abortion remained illegal but was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, making the punishment essentially a fine and not a prison sentence.
Hence, in 1933, in their first year of power, the Nazis passed a law forbidding abortion to Germans, increasing the penalties as they had been before Weimar liberalization.(24) The Nazis wanted to increase the birthrate so as to have soldiers for their military. In March 1934, however, the Hereditary Health Court in Hamburg rendered a judgment which stated that abortion on grounds of racial health was not an offense. In its decision, it referred to a Supreme Court decision during the Weimar democracy seven years earlier, allowing the procedure for "medical necessities."(25) In June 1935 the sterilization law was also amended to allow abortions on eugenic grounds and these abortions had to be followed by sterilizations, dependent -- technically -- on the woman's consent.(26) Thus, sterilization, eugenics and abortion all come together.
For the first time in German history, abortion was legal. But one cannot ignore the roots reaching back almost fifteen years to the beginning of the Weimar democracy, during which time arguments had been made that unborn life was not that important so was therefore expendable. Despite the racial theories behind this decision there were some non-Nazis who approved because of the allowing of choice.(27) In 1938 the government announced that Jews could have abortions at any time, since this could only benefit the German people.(28) The Jews, as well as "unfit" Germans, had a "choice" most Germans did not. This meant that the Nazis saw abortion as a very useful weapon against undesirables; e.g. as an act of elimination.
During World War II the Nazis used sterilizations and abortions (also birth control and even the promotion of homosexuality) extensively in eastern Europe to carry out their eugenics policies. The specific aim was to keep eastern females available for slave labor while at the same time weakening eastern nations by hampering the reproduction of Slavic peoples.(29) Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, a chief architect of the Holocaust, and personal friend of Adolf Hitler, once stated that the tragedy of abortion for German women was that afterwards women often could not have children. Not in the loss of an "individual life," as he put it.(30) The Nazis used the word "parent" to describe pregnant women and the fathers of the unborn(31) and the word "child" to describe the unborn themselves.(32) Nazis forbade abortion in order to preserve German unborn but allowed, even encouraged, the destruction of non-German unborn.(33)
Since abortion was clearly a tool in the Nazi's eugenic arsenal, it's no wonder that both the Declaration of Geneva and the International Code of Medical Ethics chose the language that they did.
Today, unprecedented technological progress has been accompanied by immense moral decline. Once again, as in the days of Hippocrates, there is an entire subset of medical professionals who believe in the legitimacy of killing their patients. Most of the specific moral pronouncements that were so crucial to the original Hippocratic Oath have been replaced by vague generalities. The most common revision was written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, and fails to list any of the prohibitions against euthanasia, abortion, and sexual relations with patients (which was prohibited in the original). Nonetheless, the following language is included:
Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death... Above all, I must not play at God...I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
Even without referencing abortion directly, the doctors who take this oath (if they're honest) are still committing themselves to the preservation of human life, which can be traced back all the way to the moment of conception. The fact that countless abortionists today have blithely taken this oath before entering into their "medical practice" doesn't change the historical record. For thousands of years, prevailing medical wisdom has known that abortion is a barbaric act of violence that kills an innocent human being.
This page was last updated on April 16, 2015. To cite this page in a research paper, visit: "Citing Abort73 as a Source."