Welcome back, Aristotle
The Supreme Court’s decision to let a Texas abortion law stand returns us to a better standard for protecting the unborn
The Supreme Court’s upholding of Texas’ pro-life “heartbeat” law, at least temporarily, is a breakthrough. It doesn’t bring us back to the Biblical standard, which requires protection of unborn children from conception, but at least it gets us back to classical philosophy’s six-week standard.
Hippocrates (c. 460-370 B.C.) and his followers were empirical, learning about the development of unborn children by studying miscarriages. They saw the formation of limbs and organs as complete in about 40 days, or six weeks. They combined careful research with a worldview: The Hippocratic Oath famously stated, “I will give no sort of medicine to any pregnant woman, with a view to destroy the child.”
Hippocrates was in his 70s when Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was born. Aristotle’s books, including Politics, History of Animals, and On the Generation of Animals, crank out observations and theories that sometimes contradict each other, but he supported the Hippocratic view of fetal formation with one sexist twist: 40 days for the “formation” of males, 80 or 90 days for females.
(Aristotle tried to justify that distinction by saying, “In the case of a male embryo aborted at the fortieth day … all the limbs are plain to see, including the penis, and the eyes also, which as in other animals are of great size. But the female embryo, if it suffers abortion during the first three months, is as a rule found to be undifferentiated.”)
The prestige of Aristotle and Hippocrates remained great through medieval times. Two influential 12th-century books, Gratian’s Concordance of Discordant Canons and Peter Lombard’s Sentences, accepted Aristotle’s view of formation, as did De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Property of Things”), which Bartholomaeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman) wrote between 1230 and 1250.
Bart’s book, which some say was the most-read book after the Bible during the late Middle Ages, claimed that a “child is bred forth … in four degrees. The first is when the seed has a milk-like appearance. The second is when the seed is worked into a lump of blood (with the liver, heart and brain as yet having no distinct shape). The third is when the heart, brain and liver are shaped, and the other or external members [head, face, arms, hands, fingers, legs, feet, and toes] are yet to be shaped and distinguished. The last degree is when all the external members are completely shaped.”
The Englishman offered specific numbers: “In the degree of milk it remains seven days; in the degree of blood it remains nine days; in the degree of a lump of blood or unformed flesh it remains twelve days; and in the fourth degree, when all its members are fully formed, it remains eighteen days … So from the day of conception to the day of complete disposition or formation and first life of the child is forty-six days.”
That’s close to Aristotle (dropping the male/female distinction). Close to six weeks. Close to the new Texas law. Not Biblical, but a big step forward, if the Supreme Court doesn’t cave.
When I was a child, pre-Roe v. Wade, some historians made fun of Aristotle’s theories, so I feel like singing the theme song to Welcome Back, Kotter, a TV comedy that aired from 1975 to 1979—and I’ll welcome scripts for a sequel, Welcome Back, Aristotle. Here’s how the song begins:
Welcome back, your dreams were your ticket out / Welcome back, to that same old place that you laughed about / Well the names have all changed since you hung around / But those dreams have remained and they’ve turned around / Who’d have thought / They’d lead ya / Back here where we need ya.