The Vengeance of Hippokrates

I was sitting in class at Modern Christian University, half-halfheartedly listening to the lecture, when the lecturer said something which startled me awake: “…and other questions which cannot be answered and on which Christians may agree to disagree–like Abortion.”  He had said it casually and tangentially to his speech, which was about another topic altogether.  He didn’t pause to defend his statement, and there was only one brief moment during which it would have been opportune to raise an objection.  But as often happens in this situation, I was suddenly afflicted with an episode of labial paralysis which prevented my mouth from opening.  Instead, I dumbly looked around and saw the other MOC U students mutely squirming in their chairs–and concluded that it was an epidemic.  One raised her hand tentatively, but lowered it before she was noticed.  Another opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out.  By and by the epidemic subsided, but the moment was gone.

I went back to my dorm that night consoling my cowardice by thinking of all the brilliant retorts and objections I would have made, and would surely make next time.  I closed the door and sat in my chair, and reread Peter Kreeft’s The Unaborted Socrates: A Dramatic Debate on the Issues Surrounding Abortion.  While reading, I fell asleep; and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream.

I was standing in a room full of men.  It was a great auditorium full of young men and women in cap and gown, waiting expectantly to be called to the stage to receive their diplomas.  I came to understand that I was at a graduation, specifically a graduation for medical students.

The emcee’s speech dragged on as duty demanded, until at last it came time to lead the soon-to-be medical doctors in the saying of the Hippocratic Oath.  This is when things began to go wrong.

By some fatal clerical error, the modern version of the Oath had been replaced by a translation of the original text.  At the time when the reciters were supposed to be saying the happily noncommittal,

Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

they instead said in plain English for all to hear:

I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

There was a murmur in the crowd, followed by laughter, followed by silence.  Then the most marvelous thing occurred.

Rod of Asclepius

A tremor went through the building.  Someone screamed.  When I looked again towards the stage, there was standing one of the biggest men I have ever seen.  He must have been seven feet tall if he was an inch.  He wore a long, loose-fitting tunic and sandals on his feet.  In one hand he held a rod with a bronze snake wrapped around it; in the other hand, he held a sword.


Again the crowd was stunned to silence.  Finally the emcee stammered, “What is the meaning of this?!  We will have no pranks–”

“Silence, fool!” said the great man, and raised the serpent-rod.  “Keep your forked tongue between its teeth until it is taught to speak truth.”  The emcee tried to retort but was unable.  Alarmed, he grabbed his throat, but there was no sound.  The crowd gasped, and the large man said something that no one understood:  “Qui Verbum Dei contempserunt, eis auferetur etiam verbum hominis.”

Again the man spoke to the crowd: “I am Hippokrates.  You have sworn my oath, and now your blood will be on your own hands unless you can give an accounting of yourselves.  Speak, if you have tongues.  Speak, if you are men and not worms!”

“Please!” someone said in the front row, perhaps a teacher, visibly trembling.  “Please!  Tell us what you mean!  We don’t understand your accusation.”

“You murder your own sons and daughters while they sleep in the womb.  Did you think that the ears of Heaven were deaf?  Did you think that the cries of 47,000,000 babes, killed in the unblemished trust of their first life, crying out for the very God who they believe has forsaken them, would go unheard?”

“But that’s impossible!  They’re not capable of that yet.  They’re not even human!–only potential humans,” someone else said.

“Fools!  Do you think your sophistries will work on me?” said Hippokrates.  “Do you think the lies by which you deceive yourselves and the poor women whose innocence you ravage will deceive me?  Decepti vult decipi!

“You say that they are only potentially human.  I ask you, then, what are they actually?  A chicken, perhaps?  A clump of myrtle?  No!  A potential A is an actual B.  An unborn child is not potentially human but actually human; it’s potential is to be an adult.  It is a difference of degree, not of kind.  Just as it is no less murder to kill an eighteen-month-old than a nineteen-month-old, so it is no less murder to kill a nine-month-old than a ten-month-old.”

“But it is just a part of the woman’s body!” someone interjected.

“Fools!” Hippokrates replied.  “You know not what you say!  Suppose a woman carries a son.  A son is male.  Is the woman therefore male?  Does she have a penis?  Or is she both male and female?–but only for nine months?”

“But we never claimed to know when life begins!  We were ignorant!  How can you blame us for acting in ignorance?”

“Of your ignorance I have no doubt,” said Hippokrates, “and of your innocence none at all.  You cannot claim innocence for yourselves, for you have not acted as men who act in ignorance.  Even in the darkness of your self-deception, you doubted your assumption.  Would you demolish a building before you were certain that there was no one inside?  And if you did demolish it, and in your recklessness killed a man, would your law protect you from punishment?  In the same way, you destroy the building (the body) of the fetus though you do not know whether there is any life (the soul) inside.  Woe to you, for you will surely not escape judgment!”

“But society forces us to perform abortions!  And the women would just do it themselves!”

“Fools!  Would you give a starving man a fully belly of food, and thereby kill him?  A starving man does not know that he will eat himself to death, but you, his physicians, do.  And if you give him what he desires instead of what is good, you kill him.  Therefore you give him what is his good, not his evil.  But when a woman comes to you, she is afraid and knows not what she wants.  She asks for her evil and the death of her children, and you give it to her.  She is deceived, and you, together with your kings and heralds and poets and minstrels and teachers of the law, have deceived her and caused her to put herself into your murderous hands.  I tell you the truth, the Lord will have more mercy on her than He will on you.  On you rests all the infant blood that has been shed since the beginning of the world.

“But all this has been said at length before, though you have not heeded your prophets.  Speak no more to me, for thy doom is upon thee.”  At this he raised his sword, and the auditorium caught fire.  It spread so quickly around the room that the exits were cut off before anyone could reach them, and I do not believe that a single man or woman made it out of the building alive.

Suddenly I woke up, still in my chair, trembling like a leaf.  I cried as I have never cried that night, and didn’t fall asleep again till morning.

Travis Lambert

Interests: Apologetics; Classical and Medieval Latin, Literature, and Philosophy; Epic Poetry; C.S. Lewis; chess; travel; writing (novel, short fiction, creative nonfiction, essay, Latin composition, translation).

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Travis Lambert

Interests: Apologetics; Classical and Medieval Latin, Literature, and Philosophy; Epic Poetry; C.S. Lewis; chess; travel; writing (novel, short fiction, creative nonfiction, essay, Latin composition, translation).

22 thoughts on “The Vengeance of Hippokrates”

  1. Well written, Travis. The very earliest known Christian document (the Didache) explicitly says: “You shall not murder a baby by aborting it.”

    Serpents like supposedly-Catholic Nancy Pelosi and her ilk deliberately lie when they try and say that the Christian position on abortion is ambiguous.

    If you support the legality of abortion, you are contradicting the teachings of the Christian Church. Period.

  2. Abortion is murder. However I have some other thoughts/experiences on the issue too.

    A number of years back my aunt and uncle became pregnant with their sixth child. Excitement turned to grief as the ultrasound and extensive tests showed that the baby was not developing correctly. He had little bran beyond the stem and no skull to protect what he did have. Other parts of his body were growing at an alarming rate. The family sought a second and then third opinion but it was clear that he would not be able to survive outside of the womb. Even worse his continued existence in the womb threatened my aunts life.

    Was it right for them to risk my five cousins growing up without a mother so that this child could live another couple of months?

    The problem that we risk when not listening to the other side is that we tend to think we hold the moral high ground and so no one else’s point of view could be worth listening to. We may then feel comfortable assigning labels instead of listening to stories.

    I have been effected very personally by the heinous thing that is casual abortion. And I believe that we MUST take action to stop that kind of murder. But be careful how you classify people based on choices they must make.

    Also, my understanding of “abortion” in the roman empire is that it was primarily child abandonment. One of the things the first Christians were known for was sneaking into town dumps and rescuing the babies that had been left there to die. While I would argue that the teachings of Christ would be against abortion I don’t think that what the church fathers were trying to say was, please pass a law stoping this.

    And since early church practice seems to be more about rescuing babies than creating laws, how many children have you adopted?
    Or as Mother Teresa said at Bill Clinton’s inauguration “Don’t abort your children, send them to me and I will raise them.”
    (when asked later “why didn’t you say somthing” Clinton responded “How could I argue with that.”)

  3. @ Tom B.

    I will break my customary silence on the comment forums of my own posts this once to say to Tom B that we are actually thinking about adopting children that would otherwise be aborted. I believe there are such agencies around that do that sort of thing, though I have not researched them. Moreover, if I ever have enough money or support, I’ve been thinking about starting my own such organization, one that would not only be an adoption service but also (or instead?) have actual facilities, something like a live-in school (like Hogwarts or Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters).

    Another idea that has been rolling around in my head, and this would also take quite a bit of coin, is a national cemetery for aborted children. I’d call it something like “The National Child Cemetery.” It would consist of 47,000,000 (and counting) white stone grave markers for the children that have been murdered in the last 37 years. I wonder if my mathematically-inclined friends could tell me how much space we’d need, given that each marker were, say, three feet apart and each row six feet apart. It would be abortion’s equivalent to the Holocaust Museum, for nothing moves men more than a visible object. That, in my estimation, is why it is so easy for us to kill the unborn: all we see (if we see anything at all) is a round belly and an ultrasound.

    I’ll leave your question regarding the morality of killing a child to save the mother to other commenters.

  4. “While I would argue that the teachings of Christ would be against abortion I don’t think that what the church fathers were trying to say was, please pass a law stopping this.”

    True, Christians shouldn’t rely on the laws of secular government for change. The church should be the church regardless of what the government does. At the same time, I think that when Christians see systemic injustice occurring, and they have the means by which to stop it, silence is sinful. Yes, we can deal with the case by case issue of adoption and help those mothers make the right decision, but what about the thousands and thousands of mothers who choose not to listen? Because abortion is such a huge, systemic issue, the means by which we deal with it have to be as well. People often say that we can’t force a secular government to enforce a Christian way of life (which is true), but abortion is so easily proven to be wrong without using any argument of faith that this point is easily overcome. Yes, we need to be adopting. But we need to take it to the next level.

    While I see your point about sacrificing the life of the unborn child in order to save the life of the mother, I have a hard time justifying why one life is more important or more worth saving than the other. You said that this would be justified because the child would have only lived a few months after being born, but I’m not sure that that makes it our place to take a life that God’s given into our own hands.

  5. TomB

    In utero abortion was still practiced in the Roman Empire – herbal concoctions for such things have been available for a very long time. (take, for instance, pennyroyal)

    Further, citing the teachings of the early Church establishes the ethics of the thing, not the policy. Obviously 1st century Christians did not have the political power to abolish abortion. In a democratic society, we at least have a chance at that power.

    In Christian Kingdoms of the middle ages, Christian ethical teachings became law. Thus, it is well within the customs of Christian political theory to make laws reflecting Christian ethics.

    As for your example – where the choice is between the life of a mother or her child – supposing such cases do in fact exist in reality (medical opinion is divided on the subject), such situations would fall under the practice of triage, and would be dealt with in the same manner as other triage cases.

  6. @Travis: I took ten minutes before class to answer you.

    That would take 846,000,000 square feet, or 30.34 square miles, or 19.42 acres. That is, if the plot were square-ish, it would be about a 5.5 mile walk from one side to the other. If you were standing in the middle, it would be almost 3 miles to any exit. It would need to be a clear, bright day on flat terrain just to see the entire area.

  7. @Justin

    Wow, think how powerful a thing that would be to see. We could have a path going right through the middle of it, and set up guided walks from one end to the other. The guides would be well-versed in the history of abortion, and would give talks to the walkers as they went. It would become a kind of pilgrimage.

    I had another idea. Penitent women who have committed abortions could pay to have the names of their murdered children etched on the grave markers, thus giving them a place to mourn. Since many of these women will probably be poor, we could set up a charity fund specifically for the purpose of paying for these engravings. That is, a separate charity than the one which funded the cemetery in the first place. I don’t even want to think about how much money that would take, factoring in the price of the land (somewhere where land is cheapest), the grave markers, and the labor to erect them. I wonder if we could figure out how much THAT would cost!

  8. I really enjoyed this piece, the dream, the dialogue, everything. Story has so much more power.

    Abortion has always been black and white for me, too.

  9. Travis, it seems that there are a few places that have set up such cemeteries on a much smaller scale.

    But, a giant one with millions of graves, some with names, would certainly have a much greater emotional impact.

    You know, I almost always stay out of political conversations for many reasons. And Christians always get made fun of for having abortion as their pet issue while ignoring others. But other issues are a lot more complicated. Abortion is not something about which we can agree to disagree.

    It’s not even really a political issue in the same way questions about taxes and government programs and international policies are political. Those are a lot more gray and I usually just stay out of them. But this is something I can’t in good conscience stay out of, no matter how tiresome it may be to pro-choice people.

  10. @Justin

    Abortion need be a political issue only if you talk about how the government ought to deal with it. As you may have noticed, I avoided that question altogether and addressed the wickedness of it. If you can change hearts and minds, the question of policy almost (but not quite) takes care of itself.

  11. @ Daniel

    Yes in utero abortion was practiced in the Roman Empire but my question is what were the church fathers, those closest to Christ concerned about. I’m in no way claiming they were pro baby murder, just saying they were consistent in their pro life stance. Since to them every life was precious before and after conception.

    And yes there were many forms of Christian Kingdoms from constantine to middle ages who made “Christian” ethical teachings into laws.
    The problem is you cannot legelslate the heart, and so people will be disobediant and do as they wish anyway. Also no one compleatly agrees on many of the finer points of Chirst’s ethics and so most often the laws did not reflect christian ethics. These “Christian” Kingdoms gave us crusades and burnings perescutions and death. And none of them acomplished the things they set out to do.

  12. @ Travis
    I’m glad your thinking about adopting children that would otherwise be aborted, its a good move (I can speak from experience).

    We have offered 3 times to support either through open adoption or emotional & financial support if the mother decides to keep the baby (we use the words baby and child as often as possible with them). The second time we made this offer the mother has decided to take us up on it and in the end chose to keep her baby. We currently buy diapers, baby-food, and clothes every week, and babysit so the mother and father can go to school for a very cute little boy who may not be here if we had just protested outside a clinic (I’m not trying to put anyone down just saying we believe in being activist not protesters).The Third time we made this offer led us to become actively involved with a mother who is expecting her first baby in a few months, still not sure if she will be involved with her child’s life or not.

    The best thing is that we have been able to shine the bright light of Christ into some dark corners of these lives. The relationships we have developed allow us to bring people much closer to Jesus. Plus can you imagine Pro-choicers arguing against adoption? It just doesn’t leave them a leg to stand on.

  13. @Tom

    “The problem is you cannot legislate the heart, and so people will be disobedient and do as they wish anyway.”

    True. But that’s no excuse for not having laws that are right. We have laws that people can’t steal or murder, but people break those laws all the time. Should we throw in the towel and get rid of those laws just because certain people choose to disobey? No. The heart is evil and deceptive, and laws are in place to restrain the amount of evil that would take place if we weren’t kept in check. If we can have laws against stealing and murder, even though people break the law, we can have laws against abortion.

  14. @TomB

    TomB says:
    March 29, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    @ Daniel

    Yes in utero abortion was practiced in the Roman Empire but my question is what were the church fathers, those closest to Christ concerned about. I’m in no way claiming they were pro baby murder, just saying they were consistent in their pro life stance. Since to them every life was precious before and after conception.

    “And yes there were many forms of Christian Kingdoms from constantine to middle ages who made “Christian” ethical teachings into laws.
    The problem is you cannot legelslate the heart, and so people will be disobediant and do as they wish anyway.”

    You’ve just made a case against any laws based on ethics…

    “Also no one compleatly agrees on many of the finer points of Chirst’s ethics and so most often the laws did not reflect christian ethics. These “Christian” Kingdoms gave us crusades and burnings perescutions and death. And none of them acomplished the things they set out to do.”

    The actions of medieval Christendom are more complicated than you are giving credit for here, but this is not the proper venue to discuss that — nonetheless you are oversimplifying here and I don’t really see a unifying point. Are you arguing that Christian ethics have no bearing on law?

  15. Homicidium Est, Sed…

    Too many times have I talked to a Christian who, after I had gotten him to admit that abortion is murder, says, “Yes, abortion is murder, but….” Now let me tell you that that is no way to begin a sentence. “Abortion is murder, but let me obscure the horror of the fact and the scale on which it is being perpetrated by coming up with the most rare and unlikely exception I can think of.”

    Now I have no doubt that there are some examples, like when the lives of both the child and mother are in danger, when the ethical solution is not immediately obvious. But I’m not talking about that. What I’m talking about the very tone in which the phrase “Abortion is murder, but…” is made, the very coldness and (almost) reluctance of the admission.

    Listen to how it sounds when you substitute a (now) universally acknowledged atrocity. “The Holocaust was genocide, but what if two men were drowning and you only had one life preserver. The first man is a cancerous old Jew who doesn’t have long to live anyway; the other is a strapping, young German officer who has his whole life and career ahead of him, and will surely do more good for society than the Jew, who we suppose must be considered to be a human being, but whose value is not to be compared to the Aryan boy’s.” Or “Slavery was abominable, but suppose you had to make a choice between the life of a plantation owner and that of one of his slaves. The plantation owner is irreplaceable, but slaves are a dime a dozen!” In every case, the value of human life is not taken to be intrinsic, but based on some irrelevant utilitarian factor. But note especially the tone in which each of these statements is made—they are made as concessions rather than convictions. With such attitudes (which, besides being predominately irrelevant, ignore magnitude of the wickedness that goes on), you can be sure that neither the institution of slavery nor Nazi Germany would ever have been brought down. Such statements come from an individual whose society has, if not bereft him of his knowledge of the personhood of his fellow man, has at least stolen the fire in his heart, the fire that burns in righteous indignation against slavery and genocide and (one day, by God) abortion.

  16. @ Daniel

    “You’ve just made a case against any laws based on ethics…”

    I’m not making a case against law based on ethics per se, just pointing out that it is hard to nail down exactly what thoes ethics should be.

    We could say Murdr is wickedand wrong, therefore aborition is wrong. Could we not also use that argument to say war is wrong, and what about the death penality? And what then arewe to do with people who refuse to follow these laws, should we kill the killers?

    I am smply saying our energy is much better spent changing hearts.

    I am simplifying for the sake of space, as you point out this is not good venue for that conversation. There were many good things to come out of the church during that period of time.

    However, one cannot deny that much evil was done in the name of Christ by the powers and principalities of those “christian” kingdoms. As “over simplified” as it may seem, did they not produce the crusades which were a call to murder in the name of God? Did they not produce the inquisitions which empowered people to torture and kill in the name of God?

    My point is that we get on sketchy ground when we pretend to be able to create laws that can provide blanket answer to an entire problem.
    We can quickly become what we are fighting against.

    I would say a story in which a group of medical students is consumed in flames for not standing against injustice is only a hair’s breath away from condoning the bombing of a abortionist office or the shooting of a doctor for committing said murders.

    I don’t pretend to know God’s mind beyond what he has chosen to reveal, but I’m pretty sure murder is murder in his eyes. In fact Jesus takes it a bit farther doesn’t he:
    “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Matthew 5

  17. @ Tom

    Murder is defined as the killing of an innocent person. Therefore, your comparison between abortion and war or capital punishment fails. For where the latter have at least the possibility of being just, an unborn child cannot possibly be guilty of a capital offense.

    Regarding your other point, I never advocate vigilantism. You’ll notice that the punisher in this story was a divine figure. And you’d do well to remember that God killed most of the human race at one point with a flood. (Why, therefore, we feel it necessary to put Noah’s ark themes in our children’s nurseries is beyond me. That’s kind of like hanging a nuclear warhead mobile over the crib.) If a man kills unjustly, his blood is on his own head. But if God kills, our blood is on our own heads.

  18. @ Tom

    Furthermore, both the Old and the New Testament are full of prophecies of divine retribution in which God destroys a great part of the human race for their wickedness, indeed for far less grievous sins than mass feticide. This of course is not to say that my story is divinely inspired, but merely that it is in the same literary genre. To be consistent with your apparent view that to prophesy human destruction is to advocate vigilantism, you will have to ignore all the apocalyptic words of Paul, Peter, Daniel, and Christ Himself. In fact, I suggest you rip out the book of Revelation altogether.

  19. Interesting thoughts…

    Your Definition of murder falls a bit short even of our current society’s standards. For instance if “murder is defined as the killing of an innocent person,” What then are we to do with the mafia boss who orders his enemies murdered or the hit man who carries this out? Many of his enemies are less than innocent. Is this less of a murder?

    My roots are Anabaptist and we believe Jesus when he says “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”
    We tend to define Murder as the killing of a human being by a human being.

    This is my underlying point here. Laws based on ethics can be quite murky and subjective.

    Also, I honor the Divine apocalyptic writings. I am not even against you writing in that style. I enjoyed “The Demolition of a Large Building.” I just think when people add commentary about using government to enforce laws, implying man made consequences, after such a story they have entered shaky territory.

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