This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of “A New Ethic for Medicine and Society,” a remarkably foresighted editorial published in the September 1970 issue of the professional journal California Medicine.
The editorial, which has been reprinted many times over the years (including in the first issue of the Human Life Review ), appeared after California, which had already broadened grounds for obtaining a legal abortion, saw its state supreme court strike down restrictions on “right to privacy” grounds. Four months earlier, New York’s adoption of a permissive abortion law—allowing terminations through the 24th week of pregnancy—had seemed to signal the progressive dismantling of legal protection of the unborn. Still, many state legislatures were going in the opposite direction. Even New York, in 1972, voted to repeal its law (frustrated only by Nelson Rockefeller’s veto) and, just three months before Roe v. Wade, majorities of voters in Michigan and North Dakota decisively rejected abortion legalization. But in 1973 the Supreme Court put an end to all that, overturning state bans and—with Roe’s companion case Doe v. Bolton—ushering in the era of abortion on demand.
California Medicine was singularly prescient in its apprehension of the long-term ethical corrosion that legal abortion would unleash. And remarkably honest, at least by today’s journalistic standards, in how it described what was at stake. The Western world, the editorial observed, was at a transitional moment. One ethic was on its way out, but not gone. Another sought to displace it, but had still not taken hold.
The traditional Western ethic has always placed great emphasis on the intrinsic worth and equal value of every human life regardless of its stage or condition. This ethic has had the blessing of the Judeo-Christian heritage and has been the basis for most of our laws and much of our social policy. The reverence for each and every human life has also been a keystone of Western medicine and is the ethic which has caused physicians to try to preserve, protect, repair, prolong and enhance every human life which comes under their surveillance.
But that ethic, the editorial recognized, was “being eroded at its core and may eventually even be abandoned. This of course will produce profound changes in Western medicine and in Western society.” Profound changes, because in its place would come an ethic that assigned “relative rather than absolute values on such things as human lives, the use of scarce resources, and the various elements which are to make up the quality of life or of living which is to be sought.” The relativizing of the value of life would take various forms, predicted the writer, but he recognized where its ground zero lay: abortion.
The process of eroding the old ethic and substituting the new has already begun. It may be seen most clearly in changing attitudes toward human abortion. In defiance of the long held Western ethic of intrinsic and equal value for every human life regardless of its stage, condition, or status, abortion is becoming accepted by society as moral, right and even necessary. It is worth noting that this shift in public attitude has affected the churches, the laws, and public policy rather than the reverse.
In what are perhaps the most memorable (and visionary) lines of the text, the editorialist predicted what the journalist Paul Greenberg would later capture in his succinct axiom—“verbicide precedes homicide”—the distortion-by-euphemism of language to camouflage or at least blunt the truth about the real killing we want to do:
Since the old ethic has not yet 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 really 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 (emphasis added).
California Medicine could hardly have predicted that within three years an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court would take the Gold Medal in Semantic Gymnastics for feigning agnostic modesty as Harry Blackmun did in Roe v. Wade:
Texas urges that, apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception. We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer (410 US 113, 159, emphasis added).
With his cavalier dismissal of “the difficult question of when life begins,” Blackmun gave schizophrenic subterfuge a Supreme Court imprimatur, an act which led to the wholesale institutionalization of lies and dishonest discourse. Can one imagine a medical journal anywhere in the country today publishing an editorial like “The New Ethic?” Can one name a mainstream publisher, academic or commercial, that has published an unabashedly pro-life book? Can one honestly expect the mainstream media to report any story about abortion—or euthanasia—straightforwardly and without euphemism (e.g., “New York today legalized prenatal killing throughout pregnancy”)?
Fifty years ago, California Medicine asked doctors to acknowledge the scientific consensus concerning the humanity of the unborn child. Today’s physician is told that scientific knowledge is opinion. The physician of 1970 was expected to uphold objective medical standards and science. Today’s physician, especially in obstetrics and gynecology, is told that his standards should be determined by the wishes of his patient. The physician of 1970 completed his medical training by taking the Hippocratic Oath. Today, the Hippocratic Oath has been sidelined or at least bowdlerized to eliminate pesky formulations about not providing “a woman a pessary to cause abortion” or giving “a poison to anybody when asked to do so.” The medical practitioner of the new ethic is hardly worthy of the title “physician” if his “services” include administering death to patients, including ones in the womb.
In the new ethic, abortion no longer need be correlated to an alleged medical need. Some nations have largely eliminated Down’s syndrome by eliminating unborn babies with Down’s syndrome. Abortion is routinely defended because the unborn is the “wrong” (paradoxically usually meaning “female”) sex. Doctors who will not sully their hands killing their patients (or providing “medical assistance in dying”) are forced to refer them to colleagues who will. Reluctant doctors-to-be are being segregated from the profession (in violation of federal conscience protection laws) by “professional” efforts to require abortion training as part of specialization certification.
Meanwhile, while the “doctor” on one side of the wall is busy destroying lives, the “doctor” in the lab next door is busy creating them in surplus, consigning some to the freezer while others are farmed out, using donor gametes, wombs for rent, and other techniques to reduce “parenthood” to a social act shorn of any intrinsic biological nexus. If anyone doubts the erosion of the sanctity-of-life ethic, consider vigorous defenses—despite paltry results—of embryonic experimentation, including production of chimeras (where human and non-human gametes are combined).
The current global COVID-19 pandemic puts two questions posed by the utilitarian new ethic in sharp relief. At the beginning of the outbreak, when hospital systems were under heavy pressure, serious discussion was had of determining access to medical care on factors other than patient need or even likely benefit. The question was not whether the 70-year-old would survive but whether her survival was as valuable as that of the 30-year-old. Who had the better “quality of life”? Now, as we hope for a coronavirus vaccine, the question of its ethical production—whether it involved using tissue from aborted children—and the possibility of its being made mandatory show just how lively these issues remain.
In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson spoke of “inalienable rights” coming from a Creator, enumerated as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The new ethic—entrenched after fifty years—has demoted life while elevating individual liberty and happiness. What is paradoxical is that the new ethic increasingly tolerates no challengers. Those who argued for a relativization of the value of life now demand that all doctors absolutely subscribe to it, that future doctors be trained in it, that public policy implement it (especially in beginning- and end-of-life “care”), that taxpayers fund it, and that everyone pretend there is no “reasonable” controversy or dispute whatsoever about this state of affairs.
Well, everyone hasn’t signed on to this pretense. The night may be far spent, but we will never abandon hope for a bright new morning. We know that the lies, the anti-life project, cannot ultimately prevail. This conviction has sustained the friends of the Human Life Foundation and the Human Life Review for almost as many years as have passed since the California Medicine editorial was published.