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Would Making Abortion Illegal Violate Medical Ethics?

In 1972, a standard obstetrical textbook stated, "…[T]he more extreme view is that abortion should be available to any woman who does not wish the pregnancy to continue. The latter is obviously more a social than a medical issue or indication."1

The authors pointed to Nazi excesses and cautioned that "the state should never delegate the authority to the physician to be the judge or force him to participate in what is defined as eugenic sterilization. The same applies to medical abortion and a democratic society should be wary of such terms as abortion on demand" (emphasis added).2

Apparently, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association, as ardent defenders of medically performed abortion on request, now ignore the above and have forgotten their ethical past.

In 1859, the AMA Committee on Criminal Abortion, which voiced its concern for a woman's health, also stated that abortion was "the wanton and murderous destruction of her child."3 

A survey of 19th-century medical and legislative abortion opponents found that "safeguarding the mother's health was held to be secondary to the protection of the foetus as a rationale for anti-abortion laws…A law which has maternal health as its sole or main consideration is not likely to be worded in such a way that the human status of the foetus is recognized…In a law where the concern is with the woman's health, a woman is likely to be labeled as 'pregnant' rather than as 'being with child' or some other phrase which gives a human status to the foetus."4

But by 1981, the AMA would call induced abortion a "recognized medical procedure," the restriction of which would constitute an unacceptable "invasion of privacy."5

Former abortion provider Dr. Bernard Nathanson has said, "We must courageously face the fact – finally – that human life of a special order is being taken…Denial of this reality is the crassest kind of moral evasiveness."6

A 1970 editorail from California Medicine explained the reason for this evasiveness: "…[S]ince the old ethic has not been fully displaced it has been necessary to separate the idea of abortion from the idea of killing, which continues to be socially abhorrent. The result has been a curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone reallly knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra or extra-uterine until death. The very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalize abortion as anything but taking a human life would be ludicrous if they were not often put forth under socially impeccable auspices. It is suggested that this schizophrenic sort of subterfuge is necessary because while a new ethic is being accepted the old one has not yet been rejected."7

More than 2,000 years ago the Hippocratic Oath forbade doctors from assisting at any abortion or suicide. Until the last 30 years of this century, that oath was medical ethics.

1) Duncan Reid, M.D., K.J. Ryan, M.D., Kurt Benirscheke, M.D., Principles and Management of Human Reproduction, W.B.Saunders Co, Philadelphia, 1972, p.272

2) ibidem, page 275

3) Transactions of the American Medical Association, Instituted 1847, Vol. XII, Philadelphia, Printed for the Asscn., Collins, Printer, 705 Jayne Street, 1859, 75-78

4) R. Sauer, "Attitudes to Abortion in America, 1800-1973," Population Studies, Vol. 28, No.1, March 1974, p.58

5) Statement of the American Medical Association to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, December 14, 1981, "Constitutional Amendments Relating to Abortion," Hearing Senate Judiciary Committee, 97th Congress, First Session, S.J. Res. 17, etc., Vol. 2 Appendix, Serial No J-97-62, pp. 56-57

6) Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Testimony, S.158, The Human Life Bill, Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, 96th Congress, First Session, Serial No. J-97-16

7) Editorial, "A New Ethic for Medicine and Society," California Medicine, Vol, 113, No. 3, September, 1970, Official Journal of the California Medical Association in "Abortion – Part 2," Hearing, Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, 93rd Congress, Second Session, on S.J.Res. 119 and S.J.Res. 130, pp. 792-794.

Prepared by the Honorable Robert G. Marshall, Director, Government Affairs, American Life League, Inc.