Friday, June 18, 2010

Viability in Ancient Greece

In Roe v. Wade, Justice Blackmun says that Plato and Aristotle like abortion "at least prior to viability." Yet when you check his cites, you find that Plato and Aristotle don't mention viability at all. Oddly enough, the same thing happens when you read the U.S. Constitution. No mention of pregnancy, or abortion, or viability.

From Roe, you get the idea that Plato and Aristotle like the viability standard, and our Constitution likes the viability standard, and Harry Blackmun likes the viability standard. Those ancient wise Greeks picked a point that, by a happy coincidence, is also the point that our U.S. Constitution also requires. It's like a trifecta of brilliance: ancient Greeks, U.S. Constitution, Harry Blackmun.

But when you read the U.S. Constitution, you don't see viability. And when you read Plato and Aristotle, you don't see viability. And when you read Harry Blackmun's secret memo, you see that viability is just another arbitrary point that Harry Blackmun might slop out there. So how brilliant is that?

Unlike our Constitution, Plato does speak of abortion. He writes, "(W)hen couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun." Is this viability? Considering that Plato is totally cool with infanticide, I wouldn't jump to that conclusion. Maybe Plato feels like a crying baby has no sense at all. After all, you can't reason with a crying baby. Can't engage her in a dialectic. She doesn't even speak Greek. She's like a damn foreigner.

If you read Plato's sentence in the context of all the infanticide in ancient Greece, and how all the bad Greek babies have to be killed as soon as possible, you don't have the life-affirming vibe that this sentence, taken out of context, might suggest. Maybe Plato isn't talking about aborting unborn babies, but rather stopping newborns.

We should recall how abortion was procured in ancient Greece: you swallow poison. This knowledge makes his sentence seem odd. In effect he's saying: "When couples have children in excess, swallow some poison before sense and life have begun."

What's so annoying about Blackmun is that he lightly glides over Plato and Aristotle, neglects to mention all the infanticide in their society, quotes them for support on his viability doctrine, and then moves on. You get the idea that somewhere in Plato's Republic there is a discussion about incubators, and how you can't have an abortion if a baby could survive inside one. But of course the ancient Greeks had no incubators. They didn't have sonograms, either. Or EEG machines. Or anesthesia. An abortion procedure in ancient Greece involved a woman screaming in pain and then dying on the operating table. Which is why swallowing poison seemed like an improvement.

How would Plato measure "sense and life" in the unborn? He doesn't tell us. All an ancient Greek obstetrician could really do would be to put his unwashed, dirty-ass hands on a pregnant woman's belly and feel for kicks. Which is quickening, Professor Blackmun, not viability. Perhaps the reason Plato doesn't write too extensively on the viability doctrine in his Republic is they have no incubators in ancient Greece. In fact, I would suggest Plato has no idea what you're talking about, Harry.

More likely Plato is using the "abortion" word to describe the Greek practice of infanticide. In footnote 22 of
Roe v. Wade, Blackmun describes the beliefs of the ancient Greeks. "Aristotle's thinking derived from his three-stage theory of life: vegetable, animal, rational. The vegetable stage was reached at conception, the animal at 'animation,' and the rational soon after live birth." Blackmun goes on to argue that Aristotle's theory "came to be accepted by early Christian thinkers." That is a flat out lie. No Christians accepted infanticide as Aristotle or Plato did. The ancient Greek belief that a baby is not rational is why they justified killing her. "When couples have children in excess, let the child be abandoned to die before sense has begun." That, I think, is a more accurate reading of Plato.

My take on Plato and Aristotle is that neither of them give a shit for women, or babies, and really they are the last guys you ought to be quoting on child care.

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