Roe vs. Wade vs. Socrates

Roe vs. Wade vs. Socrates

I recently received a pamphlet from the National Organization for Woman (“NOW”). Its front page said in bold letters: Keep Abortion Legal NOW. Its text read:

Dear Friends of Woman’s Rights:

Does the thought of four more years of George W. Bush smirking, while he signs away our rights, make your stomach turn over?

Do you break out in a cold sweat thinking about the number of radical, right-wing judges Bush has already put on key federal courts for a lifetime – and how many more he will appoint in this term?

Right now, those of us who are passionate about protecting women’s health and rights have a choice to make. Wallow in despair or celebrate our victories and get on with the task of resisting, with all our strength, those who would destroy our freedom.

What many hoped was resolved in 1973 by Row v. Wade, may be undone by another battle royal over who the next Supreme Court Justice will be, who the next Chief Justice will be, or how the new appellate, state and other court justices will interpret the constitution. If NOW is correct, Row v. Wade may be a heartbeat or a retirement away from being overturned.

While we are being asked to contribute money to organizations that advocate abortion rights, it is timely that a very interesting, and previously unknown Platonic dialogue, called the Diotima, emerged from the excavations in Athens during preparation for last year’s summer Olympics. This work explores an ancient and yet surprisingly contemporary debate about three pertinent topics: the rights of women, the sanctity of life and how courts should handle controversial religious values. In the Diotima, Socrates plays his well-known role. He is the critical questioner of a very conservative physician, the venerable Hippocrates, father of medicine in the ancient world and head of a medical school on the island of Cos. But Socrates is equally challenging to a proto-feminist, named Diotima, who also appeared in one of the most famous Platonic dialogues, the Symposium. She is the “woman from Mantinea,” in Peloponnesia, and in the Symposium is described as the person who teaches Socrates about the nature of love and the deeper meaning of pregnancy and birth, as they apply to creativity in both men and women. Socrates respects Diotima immensely and looks to her for insight and wisdom.

By employing the process of critical questioning, or what Socrates calls dialectic, the Diotima explores the values at stake in arguments forwarded by both sides of the Roe v. Wade debate. I hope that our study of the Diotima will allow us to engage in a more fruitful dialogue with those who support the pro-life position on the abortion controversy. I also hope we’ll see that, as the 18th Century philosopher, David Hume, said, “Truth springs from argument among friends.”

The Diotima begins with Socrates in the main agora in Athens. He recognizes a familiar face.

SOCRATES (S):
“My good doctor, Hippocrates, where are you going and where have you come from?”

HIPPOCRATES (H):
“I have returned to Athens from my school of medicine on the island of Cos, and no sooner did I arrive in Athens than I was accosted by a group of women, headed by that overbearing Mantinean woman, Diotima. Her group was upset that our graduates take an oath in which each new physician declares:

I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asks for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.

Socrates, you must understand that to do otherwise would bring the wrath of the gods and dishonor to a profession that should never be associated with intentionally ending life.”

(S):
“As you are a noble physician, I respect your views, but I have always considered Diotima to be a woman of great wisdom, one who has taught me many things about life and matters of the heart. Isn’t that Diotima over there? Let me call her here so that we may understand what stirred such disagreement between you two.

“Diotima, how are you, my friend?”

DIOTIMA (D):
“I was fine until you called me here. I see you are in the company of a doctor who needs to learn that healing the soul is as important as healing the body.”

(S):
“You are both sincere people. Let me hear how you came to differ so intensely. Hippocrates, please speak your view.”

(H):
“As you know, we follow the belief of the mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras, who said that humans should never deliberately kill any form of life, especially human life. Our physicians’ oath specifically requires that we avoid abortion, since human life is especially precious.”

(D):
“But what about the life of the mother? Is she not a person whom Zeus looks favorably upon? Is her life not precious? Does she not deserve to have an ultimate say about how her body is used by others, including what becomes of her unborn child?”

“Women should never be forced to have children against their will. First, if pregnancy occurs by ignorance of how life is started, by incest or rape, it is cruel to expect the mother to continue the pregnancy, after such an unwelcome beginning. Second, if the pregnancy threatens her life, I cannot imagine suggesting that the woman should die and leave her family motherless, just so the newborn will live. Third, if having another child would be too great a burden on the family, either physically or emotionally or if a family is too poor, then I believe the mother has the right to seek an end to that unwanted pregnancy. Finally, if a mother is pregnant and discovers the child is grossly deformed and will suffer from some terrible defect which even the great Hippocrates cannot correct, here again, she should have the right to abort to prevent the infant’s suffering.”

(S):
“Diotima, I understand your views about the Value of Life and Autonomy as far as they apply to the mother, but is the mother’s life the only important one in a pregnancy?”
(D):
“More than you, I know about the developing child inside the mother, but I do not believe the unborn child is fully human until the quickening, when I can feel him move in my belly and kick. And how can an unborn child be entitled to rights before he is conscious enough to experience anything? I believe it is only when a child has an interest in life, that he can be said to have the right to live, and that would be when he can sense pain or suffer, if he were to have his life ended.”

(S):
“Perhaps we should ask Hippocrates, when, in the development of this new life, does the ability to sense pain first occur.”

(H):
“As best as we can tell, from studying the prematurely born who have survived, it seems to occurs around the junction of the second and third trimester of the pregnancy. But I find this discussion of rights quite disrespectful of the gods, who give us their blessing of creation and ask us to protect and cherish it.”

(S):
“Well, then, my dear doctor, please share your views with us.”

(H):
“Like Pythagoras, I hold that all life is sacred, from the very moment of its conception. It must be protected and we, as physicians, have a duty to protect life, but especially life of the innocent, the frail, the needy, and those most vulnerable.”

(S):
“What of Diotima’s issue about those who are the product of rape or incest?”

(H):
“Even in these cases, we should honor the human life in progress, since this is consistent with our oath to honor life. After the pregnancy is completed, then it is up to the woman to decide if she wants to keep the child or if she will try to find someone who would provide a home for the child. Similarly, if the child is unintended or unwanted, we must not interfere with the course of the pregnancy but should encourage the woman and her husband to find love in their hearts to accept their gift of life from the gods, for it has the potential to be a great person some day and a credit to them and to Greece.”

(D):
“Although you are a physician, you will never be a mother. You do not know how emotionally damaging it is for a mother to give up her child for adoption after she has developed a bond with it during the pregnancy. It would be especially cruel and unfair to put women through this process, when pregnancy results from rape or incest. And what if you knew the child had no such potential for greatness, because it was severely handicapped? Would you not then help the woman end such a pregnancy, especially if you know carrying such a child nine months might jeopardize her life?”

(H):
“Diotima, I said our first duty as physicians is to protect the life of the most vulnerable. Certainly you see that the vulnerable one, the innocent victim, is the unborn child. So my answer is, no, I would not do anything to harm the life within the mother, even if it means the mother might suffer or even die.”

(S):
“But are you saying, that you would risk the possibility that both mother and child might die rather than help the mother abort a fetus that is jeopardizing her life?”

(H):
“Indeed, this is a hard decision but, yes, physicians must never intentionally kill life, especially innocent life, even when this sometimes results in death, if this is the divine will. Remember, we are all servants of the gods. We cannot create life, and, in our oath, we also foreswear any thing that would cause death. Such acts would be to become like the gods, and this hubris would be punished sooner or later, as we know from our ageless stories of what befalls men who try to act like gods.”

(S):
“But do you believe that a person should be forced to sacrifice his life to save another? While we honor heroes in our great wars, who risk and loose their lives to protect Greece, theirs is a voluntary sacrifice. I know of no law that requires someone to sacrifice his life for another. And isn’t it better to save one life and destroy another, rather than risk the loss of both lives by inaction?”

(H):
“Life, especially innocent life, is sacred. This is a fundamental principle and without exception. Innocent life should never be intentionally taken, regardless of the consequences to the mother, the father or the family.”

(D):
“I, for one, am happy your opinion is not shared by most physicians. The famous gynecologist, Soranus of Ephesus, and most physicians in this city support abortion. They understand it is needed at times to prevent unwanted pregnancy, to control population growth and even to conceal the consequences of adultery.”

(H):
“Diotima, my great fear is that, if more physicians adopt this view, they will expedite anything which is convenient and desired by their patients. They would then have no moral principles guiding which actions are ethical. If abortion at the mother’s request early in the pregnancy is agreed to, for any reason, why not later, if she changes her mind and finds the pregnancy inconvenient? Why not agree to infanticide if parents do not like the newborn because it has a twisted foot or is not male? And if elderly parents cease to be independent and become frail, confused and create a burden on the family’s limited resources, should the physician be called to help end their life too? You see, Diotima, I fear the slippery slope. “

(D):
“I think your argument goes too far. First, “infanticide” is not a word to apply to death of a fetus. You are coloring the discussion by introducing an emotional term and implying there is no difference between the earliest part of development and the latest stage. When the unborn child develops senses, he becomes entitled to protection from harm and deliberate death. But before it is capable of knowing pain or any human experience, its death, whether natural or induced, should be seen as different from infanticide after birth. I do agree that it may be wrong to perform an abortion well after quickening, unless the mother’s life is at stake.”

(H):
“But do you not agree with the slippery slope I referred to?”

(D):
“No, because slippery slope claims are often raised about any proposed social changes. I ask, ‘What is the evidence of a growing indifference to human life? Are there more abortions being requested? Is there more infanticide or are there more doctors helping poison those at the end of life who request such help?’ If there were a slippery slope, it would be the consequence of the state being allowed to take control over a woman’s body and to deprive her of the freedom to make decisions about her pregnancy. What would happen next? Would the state, in its wisdom, then make motherhood mandatory for this or that need?”
(H):
“But Diotima, even if there is no increase in demand for abortion, is there not a serious rent in the moral fabric of our civilization when it does not respect all life, especially innocent life? Would you want to live in a world where the sickly, frail and unproductive are left to die and where abortion is allowed, without any feeling of regret or shame?”

(D):
“Hippocrates, you confuse our obligation to those who are living, whom society has a responsibility to protect, with those who are not yet born and who are not capable of experience.”

(H):
“But don’t you agree that the fetus has all the potential of a fully developed human? How can you distinguish the rights of the potential human, who may be our next Socrates, from the rights of a newborn or a mature human being? Doesn’t destroying the fetus cause as much injustice, by depriving it of its life and of its possibility for experiencing, enjoying, and contributing to society?”

(D):
“We do not give rights to people based on their future status and potential. We do not allow children to vote, even if they are potential adults. While fetuses and newborns are potential adults, they cannot have adult rights nor can they assume the responsibilities that such rights entail. However, the mother is an adult and can take responsibility and should be granted full and certainly more complete rights than her unborn child. It is therefore appropriate that, if her health is in danger as a result of her pregnancy, she be able to obtain an abortion.”

(S):
“But Diotima, what of the mother who may be but a child having a child? She is not given the privileges and responsibilities of her seniors. Does she have the right to ask for her pregnancy to be ended? Isn’t her responsibility to her parents, who should be making such an important decision? And what about the father of the child? If he is a grown man, has he no say?”

(D):
“Whether mature in years or not, a pregnant woman must have dominion over her body and reproduction. Neither the unborn’s father nor the mother’s parents have the right to make her a slave to their wishes, if she feels she does not want to carry the child to birth.”

(S):
“So you hold that all sentient human beings are moral equals, entitled to basic rights. But these rights imply responsibilities. Doesn’t this involve taking responsibility for the pregnancy that may result whenever sexual congress occurs, even if the pregnancy is unintended or unwanted?”

(D):
“Terminating a pregnancy can be a way to take responsibility, even though it is an awful and painful decision and should never be taken casually. Ending a human life, at any point, is a morally significant decision — and tragic. It pits a woman’s wish and need to have control over her reproductive function with her desire to nurture, sustain and love a life that comes from within her.”

(H):
“Diotima, ‘terminating a pregnancy,’ as you put it, is a very technical way of saying ‘murder.’ Murder is the deliberate killing of someone who is innocent. Isn’t taking someone’s life, while it is in the womb, the same as taking his life when he is just born? I have even heard this called, euphemistically, ‘post-birth abortion.’ It demeans the value of human life when a woman can so callously stomp out a living being, simply because she is inconvenienced or because it requires a sacrifice and suffering for several months until the child can be adopted.”

(D):
“Hippocrates, ‘murder’ is a term we apply to a living person, not to a potential person. You keep trying to treat an unborn, unformed being as though he had all the rights of a child who is born. How can we make sense of the idea of a fetus having interests of its own in not being destroyed, especially from the moment of conception, before it is conscious and able to experience pain?”

(H):
“But, Diotima, can you deny it was in your interest that your mother did not abort you?”

(D):
“Yes, Hippocrates, now that I am alive, I have such an interest. Once a creature with interests exists, then it makes sense to say, in retrospect, that certain events would have been against those interests, if they had happened in the past. It is in the interest of everyone on the earth and alive now that the earth was not destroyed by some angry act of the gods a thousand years ago. But it does not follow that it would have been against any human being’s interests if the earth had been destroyed then, because there would then never have been any human beings against whose interest that could have occurred.”

(S):
“Diotima, your claim about rights depends upon accepting the inference that they derive from interests which, in turn, develop from sentience. Hippocrates, would you agree?”

(H):
“No, Socrates. What underlies my view of rights is something much more fundamental than consciousness as the basis for interests and rights. I believe that a human’s right to life derives from the intrinsic value that all life has from its moment of conception. Otherwise, why would having an abortion be any different than removing tonsils, if no one is harmed and if something sacred were not violated?”

(S):
“I think the argument about rights is not the fundamental cause of the disagreement between you two, nor the key to its deeper understanding. You differ about the nature of what is sacred about life and when and how human life acquires its intrinsic value. “

(D):
“Socrates, now you may be on the right track. I believe the idea of intrinsic value does underlie my discussion of rights.”

(S):
“But what do you mean by intrinsic value, Diotima?”

(D):
“All faiths and ethical philosophies connect human lives to some impersonal and ultimate source of value that resides outside of us. Some religions say this comes from their gods or the love of a creator. Others believe it comes from nature. Regardless of its source, it imparts an unimpeachable significance and value to human life.”

(H):
“I also agree that human life has intrinsic, moral value and that it is wrong to terminate a life, even when no one’s interests are at stake. But Socrates, it seems that we have only substituted our discussion about rights with one about intrinsic value.”

(S):
“Then, my friend, we must turn to the nature of intrinsic value and see what underlies this notion. Something has intrinsic value if it is treated as valuable in itself and not just for its usefulness or the satisfaction it brings us. Such things as knowledge, experience, art and nature would be examples, are they not?”

“But we must distinguish between what we value incrementally, that is, what we want more of, no matter how much we already have, and what we value only once it already exists. In other words, some things are incrementally valuable, such as knowledge. But we do not value human life that way. Instead, we treat such a life as sacred, unique or inviolable.

“The hallmark of the sacred, as distinct from the incrementally valuable, is that the sacred is intrinsically valuable once it exists. It is not important that there be more people. But once a human life has begun, it is very important that it flourish and not be wasted. This is like our feelings about great objects of art. Something is sacred or inviolable when its deliberate destruction would dishonor what ought to be honored. And what we are honoring is its creative investment, whether by the natural or the human contribution to that life.”

(D):
“But Hippocrates and I may both believe that the creative investment in human life imbues it with its sacred quality, yet we still differ significantly.”

(S):
“Ah… but I have said there are two modes of creative investment in a human life, the natural and the human. You disagree about the relative importance of these modes. If one believe that the natural or biological investment in a human life is transcendently important, he will also believe that a deliberate, premature death is the greatest frustration of life possible, no matter how limited or unsuccessful the continued life would be. Thus Hippocrates would insist that abortion is always morally wrong, because the deliberate destruction of something created by the gods can never be redeemed by any human benefit.

“On the other hand, you, Diotima, assign much greater relative importance to the human and personal contribution to life’s creative value. You consider the terribly deformed child and will see more point in deciding that life should end before further significant human investment is made, since it is doomed to frustration. More importantly, the child’s own investment would be wasted before his inevitable, early death. So the key difference in your views is whether avoidable, premature death is always the most serious possible frustration of life.”

(H):
“But Socrates, why do you describe this in terms of a lost investment, as though this were a financial transaction? And why do you use the example of the grossly deformed fetus that will inevitably die an early death? Diotima would willingly allow the mother to terminate her pregnancy for any reason in the early stages, even if the fetus were perfectly normal.”

(S):
“I do not say ‘investment’ because of any kind of bartering or exchange, but because we often say we ‘invest’ our energy or our love and our hopes in our children. We want them to thrive and are most upset if they should die before we do or if they are unable to realize their potential. This may occur if they are burdened by severe handicaps or lack of education or even brute bad luck. All of these frustrate the potential life and would more likely befall the unwanted child or the child who is the product of rape or incest. These misfortunes would especially burden the child with terrible physical handicaps. Realizing this, a mother might understandably want to prevent such suffering and frustration. Even if the child were potentially normal physically, the mother may not want to be responsible for allowing such a child to be brought into the world, handicapped by being unwanted by her or perhaps anyone else.”

(H):
“So Socrates, which of us is correct in our views?”

(S):
“Both of you have argued your cases well and have made valid points that are consistent with your values. You hold different convictions about the sacred nature of life. In particular, you differ on which is the more important contribution to life, the natural, on one hand, or the human contribution, on the other. You also differ on the question of at what point a human life acquires its sacredness. These disagreements derive from differing religious and philosophical orientations.

Today, we have not talked about issues of fact. We have not debated whether a dog over there has brown spots or if the sun will come up tomorrow at 7. We are discussing values, and they cannot be confirmed by our senses, nor verified through science. But like scientists who use experiment to determine truths in the physical world, for us to understand claims of value, we must use the critical questioning of dialectic to harness the collective wisdom, experience and thoughtful notions of those who sincerely seek deeper understanding. We discard those ideas which cannot stand up to closer examination or which derive from fallacies in reasoning. By making fine distinctions, by seeing the complexity in what seems simple and by finding relationships in things that, at first, seem unrelated, we begin to gain wisdom.”
(H):
“On that, dear Socrates, I think we can certainly agree, but what about the role of our lawmakers and judges? Shouldn’t our laws always protect the life of the innocents, which, I contend, includes the unborn?”

(S):
“Hippocrates, you are revisiting the arguments already discussed. It is the role of our religions to deal with the ultimate meaning of life, the significance of death and the nature of the sacred. A majority should not have the power to impose its own views about the sanctity of life on everyone, otherwise, lawmakers and judges who agree with Diotima could force all women to have abortions, whenever their children were unwanted or deformed. Similarly, judges favoring Hippocrates could make laws to prevent abortions under all circumstances. Our society can only remain in harmony by allowing such private decisions to be made by each, according to his or her view.

“As we have seen today, the sanctity of life is a highly controversial and contestable value. Therefore, judges can best protect this value by encouraging people to accept it as contestable and by allowing them to decide for themselves what it means, rather than enforcing one view concerning the sanctity of life.

“Now, let us go now our separate ways and pray that our judges will show the wisdom to allow each of us to exercise our fundamental need to respect the inviolable and sacred value of human life.”
END

Tolerance is a cost we must pay for our adventure in liberty. We are committed, by our love of liberty and dignity, to live in communities in which no group is thought more clever or spiritual or numerous enough to decide essentially religious matters for everyone else. If we have genuine concerns for the lives others lead, we will also accept that no life is a good one if lived against the grain of conviction.

Freedom of religion ultimately means being able to select your own idea of the sacred and interpret how such a personal decision will play out.[1]

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