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Ours is not the first abortion war. Two previous periods saw protracted contests over whether abortion would be accepted or proscribed.

The first was in the early centuries of Christianity, when faith spread within a Greco-Roman culture that considered abortion (and infanticide) routine. The second was in America during the mid-nineteenth century when abortions became widespread, freely advertised in virtually every newspaper.

The third abortion war is now approximately [30] years old and shows no sign of peace. Living in a battle zone, we can easily focus on the tactics of the moment and forget the wider context. The danger in forgetting is that when the situation suddenly shifts, as it did in 1973 with Roe v. Wade and in 1989's Webster decision, we get thrown off. Suddenly the tactics we had honed become irrelevant, and the goals we had set are outdated.

The first war

People commonly suppose that abortion is an invention of modern, technological medicine. In fact, it was well known in Greco-Roman society. Plato's Republic made abortion or infanticide obligatory if the mother was over 40. In Aristotle's ideal society, abortion would be compulsory for families that exceeded a certain size.

Aristotle also made a distinction that would develop a life of its own: the "formed" versus the "unformed" fetus. Aristotle believed that human life was present in the fetus when distinct organs were formed, 40 days after conception for males and 90 for females. This was a metaphysical, not a moral, distinction; Aristotle would abort both "formed" and "unformed" fetuses. But some Christians—Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas in particular—would later adopt his distinction. It survived in various forms right down to the arbitrary trimesters ...

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The Abortion Wars
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January 2003

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