Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Know Your Abortion Histories

Yesterday, my daughter spoke up freely. She made her choice to speak out on abortion in her school in America in an essay turned in on the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.


But long ago, daughters as they were schooled in the democratic Athens and in the republican Rome didn’t have such free speech. (They didn’t have free choice for abortions either; but more on that in a moment).

Now, the Greek men did allow more women more opportunities to write and to speak publicly. Today, for example, we can read Sappho (and even Aristotle on Sappho as he has to fawn some over her) and, through Plato, we can read of Diotima and we can read Aspasia (who may have taught Pericles how to speak and Socrates how to dialog).

But the Roman males shut all that down, making outlaws of females who chose to write or to speak. (One of the best histories on this to date is Cheryl Glenn’s Rhetoric Retold).

The legal code in the empire of Rome simply reflected the common practices of Roman men. Glenn puts it this way: “A particular point of Roman male pride seems to have been the deliberate exclusion of women from civil and public duties; and in the first centuries of its history, Roman law reflected rigid legal inequalities between males and females” (page 61).

(One Roman male was also a Jewish male who was also a Christian male. Parenthetically, here, I’m mentioning Paul/Saul of Tarsus to highlight the male Roman influence on the silencing of women. The multilingual, multicultural, multi-citizened, multi-monotheist Paul in his famous letter to the Roman church gave many instructions; but Paul didn’t have to instruct the women in Rome to be silent; by practice and by law, females were not allowed freedom of speech. Paul did, nonetheless, feel compelled to have to teach women in Corinth to be silent in the churches, as if they didn’t get the Roman practice. Paul also had his multilingual, multicultural, multi-monotheistic disciple Timothy instruct women to be quiet. Timothy had trouble giving up his Greek roots, so Paul got him to identify more with his Jewish side, and his new Jesus-following side, by getting his penis circumcised. Just to be clear, however, Paul frees slaves. Curiously, however, Paul writes to the Jewish Christians in Rome in the Greek language, saying there there are two kinds of humans, Jews first and then Greeks [but in his Jesus, there are neither the necessary distinctions between slave and free nor the must-have inequalities between male and female]; both kinds of humans [Jews and Greeks] have [for the Roman Paul] a more liberal practice and legal code than do the Roman males with respect to females writing or speaking in public; but in Rome to Romans, there’s no need to state the obvious: women don’t and shouldn’t have free speech. So when in Rome, . . .; and when elsewhere in the Roman empire, . . . )


What does all this have to do with abortion? Plenty. Just as Greek and Roman males prohibited the practice of free speech for females, so they prohibited their abortion practice too. Neither Greek nor Roman males allowed mothers to choose abortion. No, it was the men who chose abortion for the women.

In Section VI of his majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, Mr. Justice Harry Blackmun makes this very clear: “Greek and Roman law afforded little protection to the unborn. If abortion was prosecuted in some places, it seems to have been based on a concept of a violation of the father's right to his offspring. Ancient religion did not bar abortion.” Women must be silent, for the gods and goddesses are silent, on “the father’s right” to choose “his offspring” or to abort it prematurely when the law allows it. Mr. Justice Blackmun also has made very explicit that “abortion was practiced in Greek times as well as in the Roman Era, and that ‘it was resorted to without scruple.’”


The men with “scruple” were few, according to Mr. Justice Blackmun’s history in Section VI of his Roe v. Wade decision. And yet he does praise two Greek males with “scruple”:

First, there is the “Ephesian, Soranos, often described as the greatest of the ancient gynecologists,” who “appears to have been generally opposed to Rome's prevailing free-abortion practices. He found it necessary to think first of the life of the mother, and he resorted to abortion when, upon this standard, he felt the procedure advisable.”

And, second, there is Dr. Hippocrates who wrote “the famous Oath that has stood so long as the ethical guide of the medical profession.” Hippocrates is “the great Greek (460(?)-377(?) B. C.), who has been described as the Father of Medicine, the ‘wisest and the greatest practitioner of his art,’ and the ‘most important and most complete medical personality of antiquity,’ who dominated the medical schools of his time, and who typified the sum of the medical knowledge of the past.”

Although Mr. Justice Blackmun gives praise to Dr. Soranos and Dr. Hippocrates in his Roe v. Wade decision, the American Supreme Court Justice effectively silences both Greek physicians in their teaching against the Roman and the Greek male practice of abortion. “Ancient attitudes” such as Dr. Soranos’s, “are not capable of precise determination,” asserts Mr. Justice Blackmun. And of the protests of Dr. Hippocrates, he complains: “The Oath varies somewhat according to the particular translation.” Let’s come back to the question of translation in a moment.

Let’s now get to the burning question Mr. Justice Blackmun rushes to: “Why did not the authority of Hippocrates dissuade abortion practice in his time and that of Rome?”

How would you answer that question in light of the male Greek and Roman practices and laws against free speech for females? Or in light of the fact that it was Greek and Roman males, not females, who had the choice to abort?

My guess is you would not have answered it how Mr. Justice Blackmun answers it. You probably would not have turned to Mr. Ludwig Edelstein, Ph.D., but that’s what Mr. Justice Blackmun does. The Justice reads from the classics scholar’s book: The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation, and Interpretation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1943). And the male Justice quotes the male scholar, putting his opinion into Roe v. Wade this way:

The late Dr. Edelstein provides us with a theory: The Oath was not uncontested even in Hippocrates' day; only the Pythagorean school of philosophers frowned upon the related act of suicide. Most Greek thinkers, on the other hand, commended abortion, at least prior to viability. See Plato, Republic, V, 461; Aristotle, Politics, VII, 1335b 25. For the Pythagoreans, however, it was a matter of dogma. For them the embryo was animate from the moment of conception, and abortion meant destruction of a living being. The abortion clause of the Oath, therefore, “echoes Pythagorean doctrines,” (p132) and “[i]n no other stratum of Greek opinion were such views held or proposed in the same spirit of uncompromising austerity.”

Dr. Edelstein then concludes that the Oath originated in a group representing only a small segment of Greek opinion and that it certainly was not accepted by all ancient physicians. He points out that medical writings down to Galen (A. D. 130-200) “give evidence of the violation of almost every one of its injunctions.” But with the end of antiquity a decided change took place. Resistance against suicide and against abortion became common. The Oath came to be popular. The emerging teachings of Christianity were in agreement with the Pythagorean ethic. The Oath “became the nucleus of all medical ethics” and “was applauded as the embodiment of truth.” Thus, suggests Dr. Edelstein, it is “a Pythagorean manifesto and not the expression of an absolute standard of medical conduct.”

Now, I wonder what would have happened if a woman had spoken up at this point? Yes, I know: 1943 is much earler than 1997. 1943 is when Mr. Edelstein, Ph.D. offers his theory of how minor the voice of Dr. Hippocrates must be. 1972 is when Mr. Justice Blackmun reads us Mr. Edelstein’s classic-scholar theory. But it’s not until 1997 that Ms. Cheryl Glenn, Ph.D. is finally able to speak out for Greek and Roman minor voices, namely the rhetorical voices of females. Rhetorician Glenn writes Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance, beginning to give females an equal voice in their history, which is our history, the histories of men and women.


Remember how Mr. Justice Blackmun suggests that “The Oath [of Hippocrates] varies somewhat according to the particular translation”? Well, translation, like history writing, seems to be skewed towards Greek male and Roman male ways of understanding. I’m suggesting, like Glenn does, that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero and Quintilian have created “the Tradition” and that our translations (following the epistemologies of these men) have helped to perpetuate “the Tradition.” If we must rewrite our histories more inclusively, more equally, then it takes lots of reworking, and sometimes much regendering. How then if we must retranslate some of the texts of “the Tradition”? Fortunately, some are doing that with the Jewish and Christian male-dominant scriptures already. What now of some of the classical Greek and Roman documents on which we base so much of our practice and so much of our law?

Mr. Justice Blackmun makes this simple assertion:

“The Oath varies somewhat according to the particular translation, but in any translation the content is clear: ‘I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion,’ or ‘I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly, I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.’

And the Justice's conclusion about the Oath is rigid: “This, it seems to us, is a satisfactory and acceptable explanation of the Hippocratic Oath's apparent rigidity. It enables us to understand. in historical context, a long-accepted and revered statement of medical ethics.”

Now the male Justice for the male court majority has justified his views by the voice of the male classicist again. The rigid translations that we’re given are are those of Mr. Edelstein, Ph.D. But what we don’t get is even the excerpt of Dr. Hippocrates’s Oath alongside the translations. So here it is: οὐδὲ ὑφηγήσομαι ξυμβουλίην τοιήνδε. Ὁμοίως δὲ οὐδὲ γυναικὶ πεσσὸν φθόριον δώσω.

And completely missing from Roe v. Wade is this very important question: Is the Oath only made to other men? Surely Hippocrates wouldn’t make a pledge to women, right? Surely he must only be writing to other males, to only men gynecologists, to midhusbands alone (and not to females or to midwives), right? No. Wrong. And wrong again. The physician’s vow is to men and to women, and most equally also to gods and to goddesses. (If Mr. Justice Blackmun is rightly observing the American constitutional separation of church and state by keeping out the theology here, then he’s perhaps right on other grounds—silent indeed—to reject the Oath of Dr. Hippocrates. But ignoring the silenced women, in voice and abortion choice, in Greece and in Rome, Mr. Justice Blackmun turns away from the inclusive and egalitarian Dr. Hippocrates and turns to the very sexist Greek and Roman males, who silence women and who abort babies by the father’s choice).


Let’s pause here now to read the Oath, to consider its equality, and to reconsider how it might be retranslated to recognize its gendering against the male-only Greek and Roman choices. On the day after the 35th year, here’s the text silenced through the translation of Mr. Edelstein Ph.D. and through the majority opinion of Mr. Justice Blackmun:

Ὄμνυμι Ἀπόλλωνα ἰητρὸν, καὶ Ἀσκληπιὸν, καὶ Ὑγείαν, καὶ Πανάκειαν, καὶ θεοὺς πάντας τε καὶ πάσας, ἵστορας ποιεύμενος, ἐπιτελέα ποιήσειν κατὰ δύναμιν καὶ κρίσιν ἐμὴν ὅρκον τόνδε καὶ ξυγγραφὴν τήνδε.
Ἡγήσασθαι μὲν τὸν διδάξαντά με τὴν τέχνην ταύτην ἴσα γενέτῃσιν ἐμοῖσι, καὶ βίου κοινώσασθαι, καὶ χρεῶν χρηίζοντι μετάδοσιν ποιήσασθαι, καὶ γένος τὸ ἐξ ωὐτέου ἀδελφοῖς ἴσον ἐπικρινέειν ἄῤῥεσι, καὶ διδάξειν τὴν τέχνην ταύτην, ἢν χρηίζωσι μανθάνειν, ἄνευ μισθοῦ καὶ ξυγγραφῆς, παραγγελίης τε καὶ ἀκροήσιος καὶ τῆς λοιπῆς ἁπάσης μαθήσιος μετάδοσιν ποιήσασθαι υἱοῖσί τε ἐμοῖσι, καὶ τοῖσι τοῦ ἐμὲ διδάξαντος, καὶ μαθηταῖσι συγγεγραμμένοισί τε καὶ ὡρκισμένοις νόμῳ ἰητρικῷ, ἄλλῳ δὲ οὐδενί.
Διαιτήμασί τε χρήσομαι ἐπ' ὠφελείῃ καμνόντων κατὰ δύναμιν καὶ κρίσιν ἐμὴν, ἐπὶ δηλήσει δὲ καὶ ἀδικίῃ εἴρξειν.
Οὐ δώσω δὲ οὐδὲ φάρμακον οὐδενὶ αἰτηθεὶς θανάσιμον, οὐδὲ ὑφηγήσομαι ξυμβουλίην τοιήνδε. Ὁμοίως δὲ οὐδὲ γυναικὶ πεσσὸν φθόριον δώσω. Ἁγνῶς δὲ καὶ ὁσίως διατηρήσω βίον τὸν ἐμὸν καὶ τέχνην τὴν ἐμήν.
Οὐ τεμέω δὲ οὐδὲ μὴν λιθιῶντας, ἐκχωρήσω δὲ ἐργάτῃσιν ἀνδράσι πρήξιος τῆσδε.
Ἐς οἰκίας δὲ ὁκόσας ἂν ἐσίω, ἐσελεύσομαι ἐπ' ὠφελείῃ καμνόντων, ἐκτὸς ἐὼν πάσης ἀδικίης ἑκουσίης καὶ φθορίης, τῆς τε ἄλλης καὶ ἀφροδισίων ἔργων ἐπί τε γυναικείων σωμάτων καὶ ἀνδρῴων, ἐλευθέρων τε καὶ δούλων.
Ἃ δ' ἂν ἐν θεραπείῃ ἢ ἴδω, ἢ ἀκούσω, ἢ καὶ ἄνευ θεραπηίης κατὰ βίον ἀνθρώπων, ἃ μὴ χρή ποτε ἐκλαλέεσθαι ἔξω, σιγήσομαι, ἄῤῥητα ἡγεύμενος εἶναι τὰ τοιαῦτα.
Ὅρκον μὲν οὖν μοι τόνδε ἐπιτελέα ποιέοντι, καὶ μὴ ξυγχέοντι, εἴη ἐπαύρασθαι καὶ βίου καὶ τέχνης δοξαζομένῳ παρὰ πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις ἐς τὸν αἰεὶ χρόνον. παραβαίνοντι δὲ καὶ ἐπιορκοῦντι, τἀναντία τουτέων.

(PS: Now lest anyone accuse me, with the post, of some sort of titular play on David Letterman’s game “Know Your . . .,” let me respond by saying, “I’d never thought of that, until now.” My daughters and I are still hoping that the professional women and men on strike from their writing will get the raises they deserve before the Oscars. And we're pulling for Diablo Cody, Ellen Page, Jason Reitman, and Juno.)

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